Prine just fine with his tim­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - KRISTIN M. HALL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Prine, a 70-year-old for­mer mail­man from Chicago, is the hippest writer in Nashville and still in de­mand. Prine has be­come an af­fa­ble song­writer for many of Nashville’s tal­ented young artists, in­clud­ing coun­try rebel Sturgill Simp­son, Amer­i­cana dar­lings Jason Is­bell and his wife, Amanda Shires, and rocker Dan Auer­bach of the Black Keys.

“I have met some re­ally great peo­ple in the last five years that it’s easy to see that mu­sic in gen­eral is in good hands,” Prine said from his of­fice, which is dec­o­rated year round with Christ­mas lights and a white Christ­mas tree.

Prine pub­lished his first book in April, a song­book called Be­yond Words, which fea­tures gui­tar chords, fam­ily photos, hand­writ­ten or typed lyrics with his edit­ing marks and witty mus­ings along­side some of his most well-known songs, from “Sam Stone,” “An­gel From Mont­gomery,” “Par­adise,” and “Hello in There.” Prine’s rein­vig­o­rated ca­reer came af­ter neck cancer in the late ’90s left him with a much lower and grit­tier voice. Af­ter his re­cov­ery, he just moved his songs to lower keys.

“Some of my old­est songs that I used to per­form ev­ery night be­came brand spank­ing new just be­cause I changed the key,” Prine said.

He started a record la­bel, Oh Boy, in Nashville in the early ’80s, which sold his CDs by di­rect mail to fans. He en­joys his in­de­pen­dence from ma­jor la­bels, even if it has meant fewer sales. He says his only ad­vice to young song­writ­ers is don’t give up their pub­lish­ing rights in a record deal.

“I am not a big one for ad­vice,” Prine said. “I will tell them sto­ries about things I have failed at or places I have stum­bled and hope they take it as a para­ble. And maybe ap­ply it to them­selves and maybe not.”

Auer­bach and Prine wrote sev­eral songs to­gether, in­clud­ing the ti­tle track for Auer­bach’s new solo al­bum, Wait­ing on a Song.

“It was like hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion re­ally,” the 38-yearold Auer­bach said of writ­ing with Prine. “And I think for me, that’s what John does so well with his mu­sic. It’s not over your head. He uses sim­ple lan­guage to con­vey big mean­ing.”

The Grammy-win­ner has taken on heavy top­ics in­clud­ing coal min­ing on Ap­palachia, the treat­ment of Viet­nam veter­ans and the lone­li­ness of grow­ing old, and earned praises from Bob Dy­lan, Bon­nie Raitt and Kris Kristof­fer­son, who helped Prine get his first record deal. But he also likes to write with hu­mor, as ev­i­denced by an­other pop­u­lar duet with Iris De­ment “In Spite of Our­selves,” that con­tains some of his best one-lin­ers about love and mar­riage.

“I think John is very youth­ful at heart,” singer-song­writer Kacey Mus­graves said. “He’s a big kid. So nat­u­rally he gets along with peo­ple that are younger than him. But also he prob­a­bly rec­og­nizes him­self in a lot of the up-and-com­ing song­writ­ers that re­spect him.”

Even a trip to the gro­cery store is an op­por­tu­nity for as­pir­ing writ­ers to pitch him. “I used to leave Kroger with cas­settes in my pock­ets be­cause peo­ple would drop CDs and cas­settes be­cause they want John Prine to hear it,” Prine said.

His last al­bum in 2016 was a col­lec­tion of clas­sic coun­try duets with artists like Mus­graves, Ali­son Krauss and Mi­randa Lam­bert. He hasn’t re­leased an al­bum of new songs in 12 years, but his wife and man­ager, Fiona, and his son, Jody, who runs his la­bel, con­vinced him it was time.

Prine is back in the stu­dio to record new mu­sic and he has also been nom­i­nated for artist of the year at this year’s Amer­i­cana Hon­ors and Awards show, to be held in Septem­ber.

“I like the scene in Nashville,” Prine said. “I am not par­tic­u­larly happy with mod­ern coun­try mu­sic, but it’s part of a tra­di­tion. It will come and it will go, but it will al­ways re­vert back to what coun­try was be­fore. I can see it com­ing around again. I am go­ing to stick around Nashville and see what hap­pens.”


John Prine plays gui­tar in his Nashville, Tenn., of­fice.

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