The pioneer of the singer-songwriter movement performed his first album in its entirety and many of its sungs ring as true today as 45 years ago
John Prine walked onstage around 10.40 pm Thursday holding a vinyl transcript of his 1971 debut album. I had to pay $7.50 on eBay to get this thing! he told the audience. What happened next was priceless: two situates of music that spanned his 45 -year career including, for the first time, a performance of the album, John Prine( Atlantic ), in its entirety.
That album allowed the former Chicago mailman to quit his day task, move to Nashville, and become one of the pre-eminent songwriters of his generation. You can hear why in its 13 tale ballads, which softly eavesdrop on the well-being of marginalized Americans: a Vietnam vet turned heroin junkie, an elderly couple forgotten by the world, a convict eating Christmas dinner behind bars, a Kentucky town ravaged by a coal company, a wife caged by a small town and loveless matrimony who hankers for the rodeo.
The album helped launch the singer-songwriter epoch of the 1970 s and remains a touchstone for how empathy, ordinary speech and minimal detail can create the weight of a whole novel.
The night was also an unexpected break for Prine, who has been touring big theaters across the US behind a new album of duets, For Better or Worse( Oh Boy ). But on Thursday, abandoning his formal suit for denim and a black T-shirt, Prine performed for about 200 people at the Station Inn, Nashvilles legendary lair for bluegrass musicians. The wood panelling, folding chairs, and yellowing showbills on the wall fit the humble lyrics, but the music, with guitarist Jason Wilber inflecting celestial-sounding textures, measured up to Bob Dylans take over Prine: Pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.
The concert, part of the Americana Music Festival and Conference, was a highlight among panel discussions and special events around the city. In a town where ballads are currency, at a meeting where songwriters are king, and in a venue championed as a showcase for both, the night was like Christmas, New Years Eve and the Fourth of July wrapped into one.
Prine turns 70 in October and has survived two bouts with cancer, with scars visible on his neck. Yet Prine growls his words softly, his voice ragged but not rough. When he delivers the grim coda of Six OClock News His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes it is with matter-of-fact abdication, the saddest various kinds of horror.
With Wilber and longtime bassist Dave Jacques at his sides, Prine expanded his touring band with a Jack White sideman, Fats Kaplin, on fiddle, accordion and pedal steel guitar, the singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin on mandolin, and the drummer Kenneth Blevins. On Hello in There, their playing brought the room to silence. As Jacques stretched a long bow across his acoustic bass and Kaplan let notes hover in the air from his accordion, Prine sang the heartbreaking lyric of an old man and his wife, forgotten by their children. On Angel From Montgomery, a ballad induced ubiquitous by Bonnie Raitt( If you go into an igloo and theres a girl singer on the stage, if you sit there long enough, shell sing this song ), Kaplans fiddle and Wilbers guitar called backward and forward to each other as they swirled around the lyrics.
Prine noted that, despite their 45 years, many of his earliest ballads hold special relevance today. Sam Stone, written in the throes of the Vietnam conflict, could easily be written about todays veterans returning home from the Middle East. Your Flag Decal Wont Get You Into Heaven Anymore, another Vietnam-era throwback skewering self-righteous war hawks. This one I actually believed wouldnt last for six months, he said. I bring it out whenever we have an election. But the anthem that holds personal relevance to this day is Paradise, written for his parents, both originally from Muhlenberg County, coal-mining territory in western Kentucky.
Prines lyric about Peabody Energy Corp, which stripped the region for mining decades ago, has infuriated the company for years: in court documents filed last year against environmental activists, the company described the song as inflammatory.
To me, it wasnt a protest anthem, but when Peabody heard it, they went apeshit, Prine noted said. Thats what started the war between us. In April, he noted, the company filed for bankruptcy.
The second situate featured another hour of music from Prines career. Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, joined him on guitar and violin for three sungs, including a haunting version of Unwed Fathers. Between two songs, Prine mentioned that the guitar he was holding was the same one pictured leaning against a stack of fodder bales on the covering of that 1971 debut.
I bought it new in 1968 and wrote every song on it, he said. The guitar received its own round of applause.
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