LORD OF THE SONGBOOK
With an eye on opening a nightclub in the afterlife, American singersongwriter John Prine is returning to Australia for the first time in 25 years, writes Andrew McMillen
Among all the shows John Prine has played in almost five decades as a storytelling songwriter in the folk and country traditions, two stand out. The first was his very first show at an open-mic night in Chicago in 1969, where — after being challenged by a sozzled stranger — he got up to perform three songs he had studiously composed and arranged while daydreaming during his day job delivering the mail.
The first of these was Sam Stone, a song about a Vietnam veteran who returned home with a heroin addiction. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” he sang in its chorus. “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”
When he finished singing, there was no applause; members of the audience either stared or sobbed at the strange, wounding tale they had just heard. He followed it with a song about loneliness, Hello in There, and Paradise, about a disappearing Kentucky coal town; all three are now regarded as classics, and that initially icy reception soon led to regular gigs within Chicago’s folk scene that allowed him to leave mail delivery behind in search of more songs.
The second show that sticks in his mind was at a theatre in Bristol, Tennessee. It was Prine’s first concert after undergoing throat surgery to remove cancer, and the surgeon’s handiwork had dramatically altered the storyteller’s key instrument to the point where he was unsure whether his career in the performing arts could continue.
“I lost the power in my voice,” Prine recalls. “First it was a whisper, then it grew, but it didn’t have any real power behind it. I had to change the keys I played all the songs in.”
Backstage in Bristol in 1997, he was nervous about his ability to perform and how his audience would respond to his new, deeper voice. “There were 800 people at that show, and I stayed and shook hands with every one of them afterwards,” he says. “That one was quite special. It turned out really good. I’ve been smiling ever since.”
When Review reaches Prine by phone, he is sitting in an airport lounge in Mexico City, ahead of a short holiday with his wife, Fiona, who is also his manager. He has just been named as a nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Stevie Nicks. “Totally unexpected,” he says of the nomination, with audible delight.
Having joined the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015, this latest recognition is fitting for a man in the twilight of his career who has laboured over earthy, understated songwriting and his acoustic guitar for much of his life. Among those who care about the craft of words and music, his name is uttered in the same hushed tones reserved for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson — who once said of his friend: “He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fingers.”
Melbourne singer and songwriter Tim Rogers is a long-time admirer who mentioned Prine in the opening lines of the 2000 You Am I single Damage. “He’s one of the giants, but he carries himself with a very light, deft touch,” says Rogers. “My favourite quote of John’s is, ‘I’d leave a great song for a sandwich’; even though he’s so concise and visual in his songwriting, and he has an economy that you know he puts a lot of work into his songs — but he’s never given the impression that he’s tortured by it.”
When he visits Australia in March, it will be his first trip here since 1993, when he performed at the second WOMADelaide festival. In April, Prine released his first album of new songs in 13 years. The cover art features him staring down the barrel of the camera, and the subtext of that image is as clear as the frank nature of its 10 tracks: with John Prine, what you see is what you get.
In When I Get to Heaven, he outlines his wishlist for the afterlife, which includes opening a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness — also the album title — as well as smoking a cigarette “that’s nine miles long”.
Prine is still here, though, and still singing. October 9, the day we spoke, was the day before his 72nd birthday, and the overall impression he gives is that of a man content and comfortable in the life he’s built for himself. He and Fiona are in transit, in search of the sun, with his birthday plans including a seat on the beach and “having some nice libation in my hand” — likely his preferred cocktail of vodka and ginger ale.
The Nashville-based musician jokes about the challenges of being married to his manager — “The tricky thing is actually saying no; there’s great consequences if I say no!” — before conceding that, jokes aside, it’s actually rather wonderful for the love of his life and his career to be so intertwined. “I’m 72 years old tomorrow,” he says. “It can’t get better than that.”
Not long ago, after a particularly good show, Prine was getting undressed and discovered that he had been carrying 42c in his pocket: a quarter, a dime, a nickel and two pennies; one old, one new. “I’m really not a superstitious guy, but I said, ‘That must be a good sign’,” he recalls.
When a New York Times reporter asked if he had any strange rituals that he followed before each performance, Prine told the truth, and the newspaper printed it. “Then my wife went home and made me a leather pouch to carry my coins in,” he says with a laugh. “I guess now I’m superstitious. I think that’s the only one I got.”
As to whether the presence of those five metallic circles truly helps him lead his band through a towering songbook stretching back nearly 50 years — well, if he thinks it helps him, then it does. And when he returns to Australia next year, now you know exactly what he’ll be carrying in his pocket.
I LOST THE POWER IN MY VOICE. I HAD TO CHANGE THE KEYS I PLAYED ALL THE SONGS IN JOHN PRINE
performs in Brisbane on March 5 next year, Melbourne on March 7 and Sydney, March 9.