John Prine was just 24 when his eponymous debut album was released in 1971 and critics were struck by how mature and wise the singer-songwriter and his subject matter sounded. Indeed, Kris Kristofferson in his liner notes commented ‘he writes like he’s two hundred and twenty’, and Bob Dylan later famously described his work as ‘pure Proustian existentialism; midwestern mind trips to the nth degree’.
The album contains some of Prine’s most enduringly powerful compositions, listening in on the lives of the lonely, the broken and the marginalised, including Sam Stone (about a morphine-addicted war veteran – ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose’) and Paradise (which became a bluegrass standard, written in his father’s honour about a stricken Kentucky coal-mining town).
But it was Angel From Montgomery which has stood the test of timelessness and, like Paradise, has enjoyed widespread interpretation. Prine said a friend had suggested he wrote ‘another song about old people’, alluding to the evocative Hello In There about a forgotten elderly couple in a Baptist home where he had helped deliver newspapers.
Prine felt he had satisfactorily covered the subject, but he was taken by the idea of ‘a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is’. He explained: ‘I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the sink with soap in her hands. She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come and take her away from all this.’
I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that's grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
She laments how all those childhood dreams have come to nothing: ‘But that was a long time and no matter how I try/ The years just flow by like a broken-down dam.’ Then comes the most poignant verse…
There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say
Those last two lines say more about the subject’s loveless relationship than a course of counselling sessions might uncover.
The Illinois-born Prine first performed his homespun homilies à la Woody Guthrie at an open-mic night at a club in Chicago. When he was able to quit his job as a mailman in the suburbs, the postmaster told him: ‘You’ll be back.’ But this master of words would leave the letters behind.
Rolling Stone announced his arrival thus: ‘Good songwriters are on the rise, but John Prine is differently good. His work demands some time and thought from the listener – he’s not out to write pleasant tunes, he wants to arrest the cursory listener and get attention for some important things he has to say and, thankfully, he says them without falling into the common trap of writing with overtones of self-importance or smugness. His melodies are excellent.’
The melodies, like his lyrics, are deceptively simple. They are the perfect vehicle for his dry wit and wry delivery. This blue-collar champion is anti-war and anti-artifice; humour and heartache go hand in hand (listen to Some Humans Ain’t Human and Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Once More) and mundane events inspire worldliness. The bleak backdrops are sprinkled with generosity and tolerance.
Some of the observations are skewed, surreal even, but they bear the novelist’s eye for expansive detail. That’s The Way That The World Goes ’Round from his 1978 album Bruised Orange is a good example of his penchant for the paradoxical…
I know a guy that’s got a lot to lose
He’s a pretty nice fella but kinda confused
Got muscles in his head that ain’t never been used
Thinks he owns half of this town
Starts drinking heavy, gets a big red nose
Beats his old lady with a rubber hose
Then he takes her out to dinner and buys her new clothes
That's the way that the world goes ’round
That’s the way that the world goes ’round
You’re up one day, the next you’re down
It’s a half inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown
That’s the way that the world goes ’round
Prine probably set his Angel song in Montgomery because of its links with his musical hero Hank Williams. Now 70 and living in Nashville where he still runs his own record label Oh Boy with his Irish-born wife Fiona, he admitted about those early pioneering days: ‘I was terrified. I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section.’
Bonnie Raitt, an angel of a singer, covered the song beautifully on her 1974 album Streetlights, deeming it one of the most important in her repertoire. Carly Simon recorded it too, as did Susan Tedeschi, Holly Williams (Hank’s granddaughter) and Gretchen Wilson. Oh, and John Denver.
Raitt, whose blues-soaked delivery gives the song the aching quality it deserves, said: ‘It’s such a tender way of expressing that sentiment of longing. It has all the different shadings of love and regret without being maudlin or obvious.’
The later collaboration between Raitt and the man she calls a songwriting Mark Twain was memorable too. Prine’s cadence remains distinctive despite a voice roughened by the ravages of cancer surgery but his range has always been restricted so Raitt’s contribution was welcome.
Prine, ever unassuming, was asked to explain his methodology by the Guardian: ‘As long as I’ve been writing, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m always starting out brand new. I couldn’t say to anybody: “This is what you do to write a song.” I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know where they don’t come from.’
Whatever the wellspring of his genius, Prine is in the pantheon of influential storytellers with contemporaries such as Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Prine’s late great friend Steve Goodman, Rodney Crowell and, holding his entry ticket in the line, James McMurtry, a stripling at 55.
Prine has become a torchbearer for the new generation of Americana troubadours such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Tom Snider. The latter told Rolling Stone: ‘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”.’
In September 2016, just before his 70th birthday, Prine reprised his first album at a small bluegrass club in Nashville, delighting the audience by playing each track in the same order with a small backing band. He even had to buy a vinyl copy of the album on eBay. There's a new song in there somewhere.
For Better, Or Worse, a collection of duets with female artists from Kacey Musgraves to Alison Krauss, has since been released, a John Prine Beyond Words songbook is due, and there is talk of a new album of original material, the first since Fair & Square in 2005. His life is quieter these days, long grounded after the wild years, but Prine may be about to embark on another prime.
His earlier duets LP, In Spite Of Ourselves in 1999, featured just one of his songs, the title track which he sang with Irish DeMent, but on For Better, Or Worse he covers country classics written exclusively by fellow songwriting greats from George Jones and Buck Owens to, who else, Hank. Prine plays the role of bystander or witness, the songs delivered from the woman’s perspective. Just like his own Angel From Montgomery 45 years earlier.