If John Prine is the favorite quirky uncle whose visits have become regrettably rare, The Tree of Forgiveness is the sound of that beloved avuncular figure finally pulling up to your doorstep in his old jalopy and knocking on your door with several weeks’ worth of luggage. In fact, the introductory track on his first album of new material in 13 years is indeed titled “Knocking on Your Screen Door.”
The 71-year-old troubadour has hardly been sitting on his hands since his last batch of original tunes, 2005’s Fair & Square. He’s cut two covers albums, one with bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman and one with a host of female duet partners, and released Beyond Words, a book of anecdotes, photos, and lyrics. But adherents to his masterful way with words have been hungry for some fresh meat to sink their teeth into.
Both he and we have been through a lot since 2005, from Prine’s second victorious scrap with cancer to the 2016 election that sent the whole nation into turmoil. And there are songs here that seem informed by both of those experiences.
Prine tends to favor the universal over the strictly topical, but given the timing, it’s difficult to hear the ominous, minor-key “Caravan of Fools” as an entirely apolitical statement. And the amiably loping “The Lonesome Friends of Science” feels primarily like a lament for the fate of our increasingly devalued scientific community in a growing environment of climate-change deniers and conspiracy theorists. Of course, Prine being Prine, he detours into some gleefully absurdist flights of fancy, keeping things from getting too grounded in the quotidian.
The wistful, bittersweet ballad “Summer’s End” bears a gentle air of mortality, while the good-time singalong “When I Get To Heaven,” replete with kazoo and barroom piano tinkling, directly addresses Prine’s afterlife agenda with characteristic cocked-eyebrow humor. But between those tracks and the goofy old-age home antics detailed in “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” it’s important to recall that the ever-empathetic Prine has been singing about that phase of life’s journey since his 1971 debut, on tunes like “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery.” So perhaps it’s unwise to get too presumptuous about his motivations of the moment.
Time’s effect on Prine’s process notwithstanding, the years have undeniably had an impact on his voice. Over the years, some combination of cigarettes, the aforementioned health issues, and simply the clock’s tick-tock conspired to deepen and roughen the songwriter’s naturally creaky pipes. But the age-appropriate vibe of Prine’s vocals only serves to deepen the impact of his lyrics, especially when he employs the kind of deadpan delivery that’s always been one of his secret superpowers.
Given the more subtle singing style Prine’s currently employing, anything approaching an overly busy production would have proven disastrous for The Tree of Forgiveness. Fortunately, he wound up with what might be the most sympathetic producer in his hometown of Nashville. Dave Cobb has earned a mighty rep over the last several years as the man behind the boards for Prine disciples like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell(the latter guests on three tracks here). And he gives Prine the most suitably sparse arrangements he’s had since the early ’70s. At a crucial juncture like this, it’s exactly what’s needed to help spike the football.
And in the same way Prine’s big heart famously shone through early on in his career, with his poignant portraits of senior citizens on “Hello in There” and Vietnam vets on “Sam Stone,” “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” is another compassionate first-person tale of a marginalized character. It’s sung from the perspective of an unlucky soul scrambling for basics like food and shelter. The perennially easygoing Prine’s never been one to force a message down anybody’s throat, but with the song’s refrain — “I’m thinkin’ it’s your business, but you don’t got to answer / I’m knockin’ on your screen door in the summertime” — he subtly informs us that we’re all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Given the weary world awaiting The Tree of Forgiveness upon its release this Friday, it’s a welcome reminder.
‘Talking About Heaven’: John Prine Proves That Old Trees Grow Stronger
John Prine never really liked his singing voice. “The only reason I figured out I didn’t like my old records to listen was I could hear how nervous I was, and how uncomfortable I was,” the venerated musician says. “And who would want to sit around and listen to yourself being uncomfortable?”
Today, Prine is releasing The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years, to an audience that spans generations.
The gravelly timbre he has on the album isn’t something Prine gradually aged into: In the mid-1990s, he underwent treatment for neck cancer. He’s made his peace with the results. “I think I’ve finally, after 72 years, gotten used to my voice, and it sounds like a friend now instead of an enemy,” Prine says. “I sound like that old guy down the street that doesn’t chase you out of his apple tree.”
The songs that became The Tree of Forgiveness started their lives jotted down in pieces and parts on yellow legal pads. Prine finally finished several of them at a downtown Nashville hotel last summer; anyone who’d been there when he arrived for his weeklong stay would have reason to remember him.
“I looked like Howard Hughes checking in. I had like twelve boxes and four guitars and a ukulele,” he says, laughing.
Prine has a perfectly nice house in Nashville, but his wife and manager Fiona Whelan Prine and son and label head Jody Whelan decided the singer-songwriter would be more productive if they booked him a suite. “They know that I work better out of a hotel, after 45 years on the road,” he says.
There was a time, in the late ’60s, when Prine got some of his best writing done while delivering mail in Chicago. It didn’t occur to him that other people would like the funny little songs he came up with, but “Sam Stone,” “Paradise” and “Hello In There” became folk-country classics.
Those songs have had a profound influence on songwriters half his age; Jason Isbell is among them. Isbell grew up with Prine’s albums, and insists that it’s still a big deal to him to share the stage with the elder artist.
“I love hearing him sing, still. I still can’t listen to ‘Hello in There‘ without cracking up and getting a tear,” Isbell says. “It still happens every time. And it’s been probably 100 times that I’ve heard him play it live now.”
Isbell and Prine both live in Nashville. Prine was making his home there by the early ’80s, where he started his own independent label, Oh Boy Records, and got accustomed to a footloose lifestyle. A decade later, his outlook changed drastically, when he married for a third time and became a family man.
“I thought I was grounded. I thought from my kinda blue-collar outlook on life that I would call myself a grounded person. I was not,” Prine says of that time. “I was like a balloon flying around in the air. And as soon as our first child was born, boom, my feet came right down to the ground. And I found out that I knew a lot about songwriting, but not a lot about anything else. [For] everything else, I just kind of used my imagination.”
Prine contemplated retirement after he lost his manager and friend of 43 years, the late Al Bunetta. Instead, he decided to put his son and wife in charge of the business.
“I’m a wife, and I’m very protective of his time and of making sure that he gets his rest,” Fiona says. “And then I’m also his manager and I’m pushing him: ‘No, John, I really think we need to do this.’ That can be difficult, but I think we do OK. That fact that we’ve been together so long, I think, helps. We’re not afraid of each other at this point, so we can push and shove and be OK at the end of the day.”