Inside the Life of John Prine, the Mark Twain of American Songwriting

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Folk legend John Prine looks back on his colorful, still-thriving career. David McClister

John Prine sits behind the wheel of his Cadillac DeVille on a sunny Nashville afternoon, humming along to a cassette of Jerry Lee Lewis’ country hits. He slows down as he approaches a series of television-production trucks parked near his house. They’re probably here because his neighbor, country singer Kellie Pickler, is filming a reality show for CMT. Prine’s 21-year-old son, Tommy – home from college for the weekend and riding shotgun – says he’s gotten to know Pickler while out walking his dog. “Never met her,” Prine rasps. “All I know is she has three garbage cans and I have one.”

The singer’s presence, Prine adds, has invited “Homes of the Stars” tour vans to his neighborhood, which stop outside his house twice a day. Tommy recently caught his dad spacing out as he stood near his mailbox – “bright-red sweatpants, gravy-stained T-shirt” – oblivious to the tourists taking photos of him. “God knows what they say about our place,” Prine says.

Prine, 70, has never been the kind of artist to draw much attention to himself. But in his own unassuming way, he’s built one of the most impressive catalogs of any songwriter of his generation. He emerged on the Chicago folk scene in the late Sixties, singing about the characters he encountered in the Midwest – heroin-addicted veterans, lonely housewives, the elderly – in songs that combined heavy realism and deceptive wit and often took surreal and unexpected turns. Bob Dylan’s favorite Prine song is “Lake Marie,” in which three radically different storylines – an Indian legend, a troubled couple on a camping trip and a brutal murder – converge at Prine’s childhood vacation spot. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan said in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”

Today, Prine is giving his own version of a “Homes of the Stars” tour. “There’s Waylon’s old place,” Prine says, gesturing at a big Victorian brick house on Music Row. “Used to be outlaw central for a while.” He points out the house that once belonged to Cowboy Jack Clement, the former Sun Records house engineer who wrote several rock & roll classics, including Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” Cowboy, as Prine calls him, is the reason Prine came to Nashville. In 1977, after Prine’s contract with Atlantic Records expired, Cowboy invited him out here to make a rockabilly album. “Cowboy’s motto was, ‘If we’re not having fun, we’re in the wrong business,'” Prine says. Backed by Nashville’s best session players, they recorded in Cowboy’s attic six days a week, around the clock. “We were high as dogs and playing some really good stuff,” adds Prine. They had so much fun that they never finished the album, but Prine fell in love with Nashville anyway.

Prine lives a quieter life these days. Usually he wakes up late, eats lunch at one of his favorite greasy meat-and-threes, then maybe washes his car, shoots pool or takes a nap before browsing eBay for old cars late into the night. “I look busy for a living,” Prine deadpans. “I leave the house so it appears I did something. Fiona knows to never ask me what I did today. She knows it’s absolutely nothing.”

Fiona is Prine’s third wife; together with their son Jody, they run Prine’s independent record label, Oh Boy, out of a home they converted into an office. His live shows are a similarly do-it-yourself enterprise. Mitchell Drosin, Prine’s longtime road manager, books shows directly with promoters, and Prine drives himself between gigs. Overhead is low: Venues’ $3,000 catering options are turned down in favor of a $12 deli tray and a few six-packs.

Lately, Prine’s audiences have been growing. His songs have become a key reference point for young Americana stars like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Margo Price, all of whom open for Prine. “We hold him up as our Hank Williams,” says Todd Snider, who has released music on Oh Boy. “His music is like Huckleberry Finn. You get it, then you listen to it five years later and you really get it. And you listen to it five years later and you go, ‘I get it!’ And then 10 years later you go, ‘Now I get it.'”

At Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library this fall, Prine was honored with PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, which had previously been given to Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen. Simpson, Rosanne Cash and John Mellencamp showed up to pay tribute. “I can’t help but think about a couple of my high school English teachers that are rolling in their graves,” Prine said in his short acceptance speech. To capitalize on all the recent attention, Fiona convinced Prine to record For Better or Worse, a country covers album on which he sings with fans like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Amanda Shires. Prine says he’s received three book-deal offers in the past year alone. “We’ve heard from all the big publishers,” he says. “I think I’ll wait a little bit. Till I make my big comeback.”

Prine’s office feels like a clubhouse: There’s a pool table, black-and-white family photos, a pinball machine and Christmas lights all over. Prine loves Christmas; back when he was single, he kept a tree in his house year-round. It’s one in a long series of Prine’s endearingly eccentric qualities. He’ll also pack at least four bags of luggage for his weekend tours – everything from framed family photos to Heinz ketchup to Archie comic books. “I never gave up on Archie,” Prine tells me. “I started picking up Archie comics when I was in my thirties, and then I started subscribing to them. I like that they put your age on there: ‘To Johnny Prine, age 43.’ I like Jughead mainly. He had this persona that he was shifty and lazy, but he always kinda knew what was going on.”

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John Prine
Prine, 1975 Tom Hill/WireImage/Getty

“John’s mind don’t work like everybody else’s mind,” says Prine’s friend and engineer David “Fergie” Ferguson. “He really thinks outside the box, you know. And when he comes up with something, it might strike you as being really off-the-wall, but then after you think about it for a minute, it’s like, ‘OK, now it’s obvious.'”

In one corner of Prine’s office is a pristine 1942 Wurlitzer jukebox, stacked with old country 78s. It was a gift from his late friend and music partner Steve Goodman after they wrote “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” a goofy satire of country music. “I thought it was a joke,” says Prine, explaining why he declined to list himself as a writer on the song. “Next thing I know, David Allan Coe does it, and it goes to Number One.” (The song actually went to Number Eight – Prine admits he tends to exaggerate.)

~~~  FINISH THE STORY  ~~~

One thought on “Inside the Life of John Prine, the Mark Twain of American Songwriting

  1. Thanks for this, Jerry. I love this guy (and his poetry!). The first time I heard him live was a dive in GJT in 1986. Have done some of his music for decades.

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