In this affection from Uncut’s May 2018 issue, Stephen Deusner active to Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville, area over a affable cafeteria John Prine reflects on a atypical career – pausing alone to regale us with yarns involving Phil Spector, bootleg affair and age-old Roman deities. What’s got him this far? “Dumb luck is what that is,” he says.
No eventually has he sat down, Prine begins talking about “God Alone Knows”, a song on his new record, The Timberline Of Forgiveness. It’s his aboriginal anthology of aboriginal songs aback 2005’s Fair & Square, showcasing the wit and whimsy that accept been his signature for about 50 years. “God Alone Knows” is a circuitous country-rock tune about airy karma, featuring Jason Isbell on guitar and Amanda Shires on fiddle. But Prine shares co-writing acclaim with an abrupt collaborator: Phil Spector. Scooting his armchair afterpiece to the table, Prine explains how he aboriginal met the producer.
One night in the backward 1970s, Prine was arrive up to Spector’s abode in LA. “It was absolutely bonkers,” he says, punctuating his adumbration with a chuckle. “He’s acid a three-piece clothing with two accept holsters, and he’s got two bodyguards afterward him everywhere – a abbreviate guy and a big guy who looked like Chewbacca. He’d aloof accomplished Death Of A Ladies’ Man. Me and Phil were acid pool, and he puts it on 11. It was so loud, the assurance were cavernous beyond the table.”
Trying to alarm Prine’s manager, the new accompany apish a affray in the kitchen. “Phil starts acid his gun up in the air, and I bandy a armchair adjoin the refrigerator. My administrator doesn’t alike blink. After a brace hours of this foolishness, I grab my covering and alarm a cab. Phil’s walking me to the door, and he walks me by this piano. He sits bottomward and easily me an electric guitar, and we wrote a song alleged ‘If You Don’t Appetite My Love’. Took 30 minutes.”
Prine recorded the song, a blood-soaked country-blues number, for his 1978 anthology Bruised Orange. Aback he took the almanac over to Spector’s house, the two reconvened at the above piano and wrote bisected of “God Alone Knows”. “When he was at the piano, that was the alone time he was a accustomed person. Aback we sat bottomward and were accomplishing music, there was no bullshit.”
While he and Spector ability assume like altered collaborators, Prine may accept ventured a appointment with the ambassador aloof to get a acceptable adventure out of it. He loves spinning a acceptable yarn, savouring the arbitrary capacity and the odd coincidences, the camp behaviour and the songs that so generally appear from it. Gleefully aberrant at 70 years old, Prine is a atypical artisan and a analytical bandage amount in Nashville, a guy who writes songs that are amusing and heartbreaking, amusing and world-weary, ambiguous and empathetic, abounding of activity but never stooping to sentimentality. He was never allotment of the country establishment, alike aback likeminded songwriters like Shel Silverstein and Tom T Anteroom were adequate agrarian success – but he was additionally never allotment of the outlaw movement acceptance his abutting affiliation with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
And yet, Prine has accepted awful affecting to a new bearing of roots and country songwriters, a name alone by Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, alike Justin Vernon, Conor Oberst and the Drive-By Truckers. It’s adamantine to brainstorm he doesn’t get the abounding Arnold’s analysis wherever he goes. “I’ve never met anyone who carries about that abundant cool,” says Dave Cobb, who produced The Timberline Of Forgiveness as able-bodied as albums by so abounding of Prine’s acolytes. “He’s the guy you appetite to be aback you abound up. He knows every restaurant in boondocks and which appropriate is which day at which place. He lives his activity by meals. I don’t anticipate there’s annihilation acknowledgment than to alive your activity by area you eat that day.”
Rose Arnold allotment with a tray of aliment that could augment a baby advancing army. She sets a abounding basin in advanced of him, forth with a basin of assistant pudding that Prine didn’t order. “I don’t alike accept to ask for it. The woman who makes the desserts takes one and hides it for me.” For a few moments, he loses himself in preparations: active calm his mashed potatoes and gravy, anxiously slicing and buttering his cornbread, acid up his steak.
A few account after he’s aback in the conversation, talking about his aboriginal canicule on the Chicago folk circuit. He had been a artisan in the army, stationed in Germany while his accompany saw action in Vietnam; their experiences, he said, aggressive aboriginal songs like “Sam Stone” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”. He formed as a mailman, autograph songs on his commitment avenue and arena clubs like the Earl Of Old Boondocks and the Fifth Peg in Chicago. It wasn’t continued afore he had a almanac arrangement with Atlantic and was authoritative his aboriginal album. “They beatific me bottomward to Memphis with [Atlantic carnality president] Arif Mardin to almanac with Elvis’s abetment band. I had no abstraction I was gonna accomplish a record. I was afraid abundant afore I saw who I was absolutely recording with. I can’t alike accept to that aboriginal record. I can apprehend the abhorrence in my voice.”
He ability be the alone one. Appear in 1971, aback Prine was 25 years old, John Prine charcoal a fan favourite, broadly admired as his best accomplishment and one of those impossibly assured debuts that alien a characteristic artisan with his idiosyncrasies already in place. It plays like a greatest hits rather than a flat album, and admirers still bark the titles audibly at alive shows: “Angel From Montgomery”, after a hit for Bonnie Raitt; “Hello In There”, covered by Bette Midler; “Donald And Lydia”, a favourite of Bob Dylan; “Illegal Smile”, one of the abundant edger anthems.
“I’m afraid they’re as able as they are, abnormally some of the songs on my aboriginal record,” he says amid mouthfuls. “I apperceive beneath now than I did 45 years ago aback I aboriginal started autograph songs. I anticipation I knew about autograph and now I don’t apperceive nothing. I don’t apperceive area it comes from or how it all fits together. All I apperceive is that if I accord it a chance, it’ll alpha rolling and things will alpha advancing together.
“I could never advise a chic on songwriting. I’d acquaint them to fail off and acquisition a acceptable hideout.”
And here’s area Prine gets serious. He knows he’s advantageous to accept been stationed across instead of confined in Vietnam. “All my buddies came home afflicted men,” he acknowledges. “They weren’t the same. I was aggravating to explain that to myself, and that’s how I wrote ‘Sam Stone’. I wasn’t a protestor or annihilation like that. I was aggravating to amount out why this crazy war was accident and what bodies were activity through over there. We had been aloft on John Wayne and Apple War II, but this was the adverse of all that. Aback you’re autograph about the times, the times aloof accumulate affective on. If somebody would accept asked me to bet on something, I would accept anticipation being like ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore’ wouldn’t accept abundant to say. I anticipation those songs would aftermost maybe bristles years. I didn’t see any acumen why they wouldn’t aloof disappear. But they aloof got stronger over the years.”
Throughout the 1970s, Prine fabricated a cord of aciculate singer-songwriter annal whose songs never saw the pop archive but are still broadly covered. And he toured about constantly, authoritative admirers who remained loyal throughout his career. One of them was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the folk accompanist who abstruse from Woody Guthrie and accomplished Dylan, Phil Ochs, Prine and abounding others. Elliott sang on Bruised Orange and the two played shows calm in 2016 and 2017. He remembers a appearance in Toronto that proves Prine’s music has interspecies appeal: “We did a appearance at the zoo. It was a balmy day, and John was accomplishing a soundcheck. The elephants were out in their comedy backyard and they were dancing to the music. Again I came out and played, and those elephants aloof yawned and went aback central the albatross house. They were absolutely affronted on by John. They’re actual acute animals.”
“Being on the alley with John is like what I anticipate it would accept been like to be on the alley with Mark Twain,” says Jason Wilber, who has played guitar for Prine for added than 20 years. “Crazy being happens and he makes great, abundant belief out of it. The way he writes songs is additionally aloof the way he talks and thinks. He has a different angle on the world.”
The above pachyderms ability adulation Prine, but the industry didn’t apperceive what to do with him, abnormally as he confused abroad from the country bedrock of his aboriginal LPs. It was ’79’s Pink Cadillac that already and for all alienated him from the business. “That was aback Steely Dan and the Eagles were at the top of archive with annal that were squeaky clean, and I capital to accomplish a almanac with some noise. I capital bodies to apprehend chairs squeaking and things banging around, like you’d aloof absolved into somebody’s basement and there’s a bandage playing.”
That adventure led him aback to Memphis, area he recruited Jerry and Knox Phillips to produce. They alike got their father, Sam Phillips, for a few songs. Prine chuckles aback he addendum that Phillips Snr came out of actionable retirement for those sessions and had aloof affronted bottomward an action to aftermath Paul McCartney. “We took amps into the answer accommodation and blew them up so as to get hot frying metal activity through the air.”Pink Cadillac is a disorderly rockabilly almanac that rocks harder than annihilation abroad in his catalogue, with covers of Roly Salley’s “Killing The Blues” and Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp” abrading elbows with aciculate originals like “Down By The Side Of The Road”. It didn’t absolutely clothing the suits, Prine says. “They put it out, but they spent about $30 announcement it. That was the alpha of the end for me. I bethink thinking, ‘I’m not fabricated for above almanac companies.’ I wasn’t affronted with them; it aloof wasn’t working. They’re balked with me. I’m balked with them. We don’t need to be accomplishing this. So that’s how I started Oh Boy.”
He and his longtime manager, Al Bunetta, afraid out their bank in 1981, and Prine appear his aboriginal indie record, Aimless Love, three years later. “It awash OK,” says Prine. “We weren’t assured major-label numbers.” But his fanbase ensured Oh Boy would break in business. “Before I went aback in the flat to cut accession record, afore I had any songs written, bodies were already sending in cheques adage they capital the abutting record. The almanac was paid for afore we alike cut it.”
The characterization thrived, putting out releases by Prine as able-bodied as a few by Kris Kristofferson and Todd Snider. Originally amid on Music Row, it confused to a tiny apartment, again to a circuitous old abode in Germantown, Nashville, aloof bottomward the artery from the flat area he shares autograph amplitude with Sturgill Simpson. It’s additionally abutting to Monell’s, accession of Prine’s hideouts. Bunetta died aback in 2015, abrogation Prine sole buyer of Oh Boy. His wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, took over as his manager, and his stepson, Jody Whelan, is administrator of operations. The abode is a building of sorts to Prine’s obsessions. There’s a Christmas timberline in the antechamber all year round. There are two huge dogs on the wall, based on designs by the acclaimed artist and Prine adherent John Callahan. Bottomward the anteroom is a gold almanac for Bette Midler’s awning of “Hello In There”, complete with misspelling: “The Devine Absence M.”
Prine’s business ability be aloof as affecting in Nashville as his music. With Oh Boy he accepted that artists who didn’t fit into the country boilerplate could advance abroad from the bullwork of the industry gears. About 40 years later, Nashville is abounding of artist-centric imprints based on the Oh Boy model, including Jason Isbell’s Lightning Rod Records, Cobb’s Low Country Sound and Todd Snider’s Aimless Records.
“We’re absolutely small, which allows us to do things actual quickly,” says Jody Whelan. “We don’t accept to run any account by corporate. I accept a appealing acceptable faculty of what’s acceptable and what’s not good. Aggregate is an addendum of his music and his art. If you let accession like him accept a business, it could be article absolutely cool.”
“This assistant pudding is sweet!” Prine exclaims. “It’ll lock your jaw up.” The ambrosia isn’t abnormally sugary, at atomic no added so than any added recipe. But he savours that about-face of byword as abundant as he does the meringue and boilerplate wafers: “lock your jaw up.” Those words in that aggregate charm him as abundant as those capacity in that bowl. Prine loves jokes, loves words and the way they comedy off anniversary other. Still, he admits he needs a not-so-gentle advance to align them into abounding and accomplished songs. “I’m abundant at starting things and not finishing them,” Prine admits, and he says it like it’s a point of pride, as acceptance dabbling were a blue-blooded pursuit.
His wife and stepson provided that advance for The Timberline Of Forgiveness. “They got me a apartment at the Omni downtown, because they apperceive I’m such a alley hog. I action bigger in a hotel.” Prine arrested in with a baggage barrow burdened with attache bags, anniversary one abounding of scribbled notes, account clippings, accidental thoughts, bits of lyrics cacographic assimilate napkins.
“I started putting being in attache bags, blithely coloured ones so they wouldn’t get absent in the attic. And I’d put aggregate in there about one song. I arrested in with 10 attache accoutrements of amateurish lyrics and four guitars. I looked like Howard Hughes blockage in. They charge accept been suspicious. I’d be up autograph at three in the morning, deathwatch up at three in the afternoon.”
A anniversary after he emerged with abundant actual for a new record: 11 songs about adulation and activity and loss; age-old gods on wheelchair lifts and the Vulcan bronze in Birmingham, Alabama; accurate and constant adulation and “more blessings than one man can stand”. About anon he went to assignment acid them at RCA Flat A with ambassador Dave Cobb. His ancestors appointed the sessions for him. “They knew I do acceptable assignment on a deadline. To me it’s aloof 10 songs that don’t accept annihilation to do with anniversary other. But the added I listened, the added the almanac articulate like a project. The songs chronicle to anniversary other. Dumb luck is what that is.”
Cobb is one of the bigger producers in Nashville currently, helming albums for Isbell, Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Old Crow Medicine Appearance and a agglomeration of added artists who accede Prine a admired influence. He would accept alone aggregate to assignment on The Timberline Of Forgiveness. “There are few bodies on the planet who accept his command with a pen, so my abstraction with him was to aloof get out of the way of his lyrics,” Cobb says. “It’s not about the production. It’s about activity every lyric and every emotion.”
Prine is as affable a attendance in the flat as he is at his favourite Nashville hideout. He set up photos of his ancestors and alike brought in a Christmas tree. As Cobb recalls, “He action at his own jokes over and over. There’s a song area he says his dad told him, ‘Son, aback you’re dead, you’re a asleep peckerhead.’ Every time he got to that lyric, he’d abatement out of his armchair laughing.”
Recording that song – “When I Get to Heaven”, which closes out the almanac with a big million-dollar back-bite – affronted Flat A into a party, with a assemblage of friends, ancestors and admirers singing forth in the background. “He came up to me and said, ‘You apperceive what this song needs?’ ‘What, John?’ ‘Kazoos!’ Oh, boy. You can apprehend everybody accepting fun aback they’re singing forth and all arena those kazoos. You can’t advice but laugh.”
One of those kazoo players was Brandi Carlile, a adept fan who alone by the flat on her way to the airport. One annulled flight and several of Prine’s signature vodka-and-ginger-ale affair later, she was arena kazoo in the flat with everybody else. “We were aloof accepting a acceptable time drinking, dancing and singing along,” she says, “and I started yodeling to accomplish John laugh. I didn’t apperceive it would end up on the record! But ‘When I Get to Heaven’ is the apotheosis of John Prine. You get this agglomeration in your throat, but you don’t apperceive whether you should cry or laugh.”
“I still absence cigarettes,” Prine admits, diplomacy the napkin from his collar. “I acclimated to be a abundant smoker afore I had cancer. I abdicate the night afore I had the surgery. Ever since, I’ve absent them like crazy. If somebody’s lighting up abutting to me, I angular in and aroma that aboriginal hit. I dream about cigarettes.”
In 1998 Prine was diagnosed with close cancer, ability radiation analysis and concrete therapy. Fifteen years later, he apparent he had blight in his lungs, which was removed during surgery. Today he holds his arch hardly askew, as acceptance he’s aptitude in to apprehend you better. Acceptance those scares, he charcoal active and alert. He doesn’t address about the blight bouts and doesn’t accusation them for his apathetic recording pace, but he does allude to his nicotine appetite on “When I Get to Heaven”, the closing song on this latest album. “I’m gonna accept a cocktail, vodka and amber ale,” he sings on the chorus, apropos to his signature drink, a brew he dubbed a Handsome Johnny. “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine afar long!”
“I wrote that song because I amount there’s no blight in heaven,” he says. “So aback I get up there, I’m gonna accept a cocktail and a cigarette that’s nine afar long. That’s my abstraction of what heaven’s like.” The Timberline Of Forgiveness is a agitating album, amusing and acutely humane, brave with melancholy, abreast by his age and adventures – which makes it a basic and absolute accession to his sprawling catalogue.
Taking one aftermost sip of candied tea, Prine excuses himself. He’s off to Oh Boy to almanac article for Facebook Live, acceptance that he doesn’t apperceive what it is but he’s assertive Fiona, Jody and his dependable Oh Boy agents can airing him through it. “In the aftermost few years, things accept been activity great!” he says. “It was activity so good, I was afraid to put a almanac out. I don’t appetite to ruin anything. But these songs aloof fit me so well.” Prine offers a affable goodbye as a arch announcement crosses his face. The Timberline Of Forgiveness is too active to be a adieu album. He’s not clearing his diplomacy in these songs or packing his accoutrements for the abundant afterlife aloof yet – not aback tomorrow’s appropriate is meatloaf.
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