A Conversation with the Legendary John Prine
by Ethan Stewart
(Photos of Jon Prine by John Chiasson)
All things considered, John Prine has a pretty good excuse for going almost a decade without a studio release. In the last 10 years, after all, he has both become a father and battled cancer. But when his latest album, Fair and Square, hit the streets this past January, it was instantly obvious that one of America’s most gifted lyricists was back. For the first time in what he figures has been a “long, long while,” Prine is coming back to Santa Barbara this week. Joined by opening act Jim James, the charismatic and brutally talented front man from My Morning Jacket, Prine is bringing his timeless brand of mild bluegrass and country-infused folk to the Arlington this Saturday for what is sure to be a transcendent evening of music. What follows is the bulk of a lengthy and enjoyable telephone conversation I had with Prine last week, one of the only interviews he does every year.
So you’re coming to Santa Barbara?
Yeah. It’s been a long time.
When do you reckon you were here last?
I don’t know. The last time I really remember doing something in S.B. was back in the ‘80s. I’m sure we’ve been back since but I can say for sure when.
And you’re coming with Jim James (pictured by Jana Wolfart), frontman for My Morning Jacket?
Yeah. He’s doing the whole California leg with us. I met him the year before last at Bonnaroo and it turns out he’s a big fan of the music. And he’s just got a great band. I think their ready to just bust wide open
Seems like a perfect match to me in some odd parallel universe sort of way.
(Laughs) Yeah. He mentioned us touring together back then, but it took us this long to finally get together. His band didn’t have any shows and he really wanted to do this solo thing. It should be good, real good
Seems like its been a while since you put a studio album-, like 8 or 9 years?
(Laughs.) I wasn’t aware of it until I put the album out, but yeah….It took longer before I got enough songs that I actually felt that I could go in and do a record. I don’t like to go in and record like half a record and then play catch up. The only thing I can directly explain it with is becoming a father. I’m not saying that’s the reason it took me so long to write. It’s definitely a factor in it though. Writing for me used to be something that just happened in the middle of the night. You know, while I was playing cards or something. Now I have an actual schedule where I have to get up at 6 in the morning and take them to school and it leads right on down the line so I have to schedule my writing now. You know, set aside time for it. I never had to do that before. I can’t always. I was never good at writing on demand. So I say I’m going to write next Wednesday and I take the whole day and sometimes I just sit there and stare at the pencil.
Is this tour mostly new stuff or is it more of a mix from the old and the new?
About half and half. My shows just get longer the more records I put out. There are songs I just can’t drop from the show, things people expect to hear. And you don’t always get to a town every six months or even every year, or in Santa Barbara’s case, every decade. So you have to do a lot of the old ones and the ones from along the line. We got to cover a lot of territory, which I really don’t mind. I’m just glad as many of my songs still sound as good as they do.
Ain’t that the truth. Seems like some of your songs ring as true today as when you first started playing them three or four decades ago.
If you had asked me 30 years ago, I would have bet against it. I would have thought that some of them would have been frozen in time, that they would always sound like they were from the early ‘70s or the late ‘60s. But geesh, we aught to all be driving our own jets by now and taking monorails to work. We’re not supposed to be doing the same stuff all over again, let alone making the same mistakes with these wars.
How is that? Is it trippy deja vu or what?
Only with a couple of songs. I had retired the song, “You’re Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” I thought that one in particular was a song not just about Vietnam but also the general opinion on the street from people like the silent majority saying everything they did by displaying their flags. I thought that was something that was just freeze in time but geez, talk about deja vu. It is really timely now. So I dusted it off and brought it back out. But I’ll be happy to put it away again.
Who are you digging on today? Is there anyone in particular that you see carrying on the torch of what you started so many years ago?
Todd Snider. He was on my label for while and he’s just doing great. He’s on a new label now but that doesn’t matter. He just gets better and better with each live show he does. He’s a real good live performer and that’s the way it used to be more, especially when I was starting out. I watched Steve Goodman. He was always an excellent entertainer but he’d put himself in situations where he’d open shows with Bob Seger and it would just be him and Steve and acoustic guitar on stage. And he wouldn’t leave the stage until he had the audience’s attention with that one acoustic guitar. Nobody knew him when he first came on….That’s what Todd’s doing. He’s figuring out ways to get the audiences attention and bring them over here. I appreciate that more than what people do on records.
That connection between performer and audience?
Yeah. My whole thing as being a live performer, I feel like I was a door-to-door salesman. (Laughs) I feel like when I go to shows now and we are able to play these small halls, I feel like I got the people one at a time. Plus now I’ve got their sons and their daughters.
That’s a real special thing man.
It is really rewarding now. When I was in the thick of it, I always wondered why things moved so slow. But I’m glad they did. Now I know who my audience is. They’re not just there because I got one song that was all over radioland last year. They are there for the right reasons and they are going to be here next year too. Not a whole lot of people can depend on that, you know.
Absolutely. You’ve survived neck cancer recentl. What role did that play, if any, in your new album?
Mmmm. You know something like that takes a while to come in the writing. Basically, when it was all said and done, and I had went through the surgery and treatments and everything, the whole experience—no matter what your general outlook is—it makes everything look a little rosier. I got it great right now. I was 50 before I started having kids and I never knew how great it was. I really didn’t. I always figured it would be all right, but its really settled me down a lot and made my life a whole lot better. And then to have my experience with cancer and be able to come out of it like I did—that just makes me appreciate everything more and more. And at my age, it’s just great to be feeling that way about things.
How old are you now?
I just turned 60 last week, which feels a lot better than 59
How old are your kids?
Eleven and 12, both buys, 10 months apart.
Are they into music at all?
Oh yeah. They both play guitar and one plays drums and the other keyboards too.
That must be a hoot.
Yeah. I mean, I’m not a very good teacher so they had take lessons. But once they got going, there’s just a natural rhythm there. You know what I mean? You can just tell whether some is messing around or if they’ve really got that rhythm going. I don’t know—maybe they’ll be able to support me someday.
So what are they listening to?
Oh, it’s all over the map. They like Hendrix and The Who. Big on the Chill Peppers—all summer, that’s all I heard. Green Day too..They like it loud.
Sounds like they are all about the power of guitar.
Exactly. Which is just fine by me.
You got anyting else cooking.
Yeah. I’m just finishing up an album I did with a fella named Mack Wiseman. Mack has been around since the ‘40s. He was always considered a bluegrass singer, but I always thought of him as a song stylist-type crooner. And we tied into each other just by being around Nashville. It had been suggested to both of us that we should do a record together sometime. So a couple years ago, we sat down and cut a couple of things and we were amazed how well our voices sounded together, considering he’s a real singer and I’m not. So we started making lists of songs we liked—old country and pop standards—and we cut them and we got 15 songs now. I’m co-producing it and I’m getting to ready mix the thing in November, so it will probably be for the first part of April before it hits the streets. I’m just real proud of it.
All cover tunes?
Yeah. I didn’t write anything for it. When we first got together, we didn’t have any real restrictions. I just said, “Mack, pick 15 songs you’d like to sing and I’ll do the same.” And we didn’t say from any particular era and we both came with about 20 or 25 songs a piece. And 15 of those 25 were the same on both lists. (Laughs.) So we thought, “Wow, there’s something really going on here. What ever we are doing we are doing the same thing.” So from there, we just started singing….It was great. I’ve been playing them a lot lately.
Listening to the yet-to-be-released record?
Yeah. As far as listening to my own records, I probably only listen to them right up until the day they actually come out.
A lot of your older tunes get covered quite a bit by other artists. Do you listen to those ever?
It’s always interesting to hear somebody else’s read on your songs. Until I actually sat down and got the list and looked at the people doing my songs, I never realized I actually got covered that much. Most of the stuff I just wrote for myself. I can’t really remember every sitting down to write for somebody else
I was drawn to your simple poetic lyrics, your ability of telling it how it is. Does it just come to like that in these perfectly bundled packages?
It either comes to you or it doesn’t. (Laughs) I don’t really know any more about it now than I did when I first started. I think when I first started doing this for an actual living and I made my first couple records, I think I thought I knew something about what I was doing, but I really don’t. It’s just that something comes along. If it seems too much like work to me, usually it will come out sounding that way to me. It will sound like it was really a large effort. Until you go out sing a song a bunch, you never really know what the power of the song is going to be. You don’t know if it’s going to last or not. Some of them you really like when you first write them but then after a couple of years they just fade. But some of them also just get stronger and stronger and more kinda cut where they are real vibrant. It’s funny what age can do to it.
Do you have a personal favorite in your catalog?
Yeah, but they change a lot. Usually my favorites are whatever I am working on at the time because that is what is foremost on your mind. You can’t really get out of your head. But as far old ones go, I like “Hello in There” a whole lot and there is a song called “Far From Me” on my first record that I really like. But I got to watch it, you know, where I put my songs. I have got a lot of really good sad songs—I love sad songs. But I can’t string too many of them together these days [because I’m feeling so good about things], so I have to figure out ways to sneak them in.
Was there a point early on when you realized, “This is it. This is what I’ m doing”?
Probably about five years into it. And it’s funny—now that I have been around for a while, it’s something I have seen happen to a lot of people. It takes about two or three albums and about five or six years of touring before it really sinks in that this is what you are doing. And you go through a period where you really doubt everything. You doubt your motives like “what exactly do you want to do”. Usually people start out on big labels and the labels want everybody to sell a million records. And I remember doing some soul searching and figuring out what made me happy and what I wanted to do, what exactly I wanted to pursue making this music that I make. I’m not sure how I make it, but I didn’t want to change it to try and get a big hit or anything. You got to really know that otherwise you are going to wrestle with it for along time. But once you get past that it is pretty much…well…it’s pretty much just fun.
What would you be doing if the music thing didn’t work out?
Mailman. I never did anything else. I didn’t have anything that fits any real job description. On one hand, I would hate to encourage my kids to just drop everything and go write songs, but it worked for me. (Laughs.) But I want make sure they go get a good education too.
You were in the military too for a while, right?
Yeah. I was drafted in January of 1966 when the Vietnam thing was really escalating. It went from, I think, 25,000 troops in Vietnam to 500,000 so I thought I was headed there for sure. Once I got through all my training—they trained me in the swamps of Lousiana so I could see they were just getting us ready to go over to Vietnam—but then I got orders to go to Germany of all places. It just turned out that there were a lot of guys in Europe that had just got out and we still had a NATO agreement that we had to have 300,000 U.S. troops in Europe all the time and I just lucked out and got sent over there. Some of the guys that went with me, once we got to Germany, they volunteered to go over to Vietnam and do their 13 months because they make more money and get an early out. But some of them got too early of an out and they got sent home in a box. Wow., January of ’66—that was a long time ago.
Military and then a postman—two government checks for a guy who is pretty outspoken against the machine. How’s that?
(Laughs.) The government always had good benefits. If you don’t know what you want to do for a living, it’s not a bad job to work for the government because everything rises directly with the cost of living and you’ve also got great health benefits right from the get-go. Really that was all I was looking for—just to be covered. I got married real young and I just wanted us to be covered. At that point, songwriting to me was just a hobby. I didn’t think that what I wrote and what I was hearing on the radio had anything to do with each other.
You do any other writing as well?
You know, I did when I first started out. I used to write short stories. But I guess I was meant for songwriting ‘cause I would always try and write as short a possible thing as I could. Sometimes I would just write of couple pages of straight dialogue with people talking back and forth with no he said or she said. I always enjoyed that. I really liked just sitting at a typewriter. I haven’t made the transition yet either—I just don’t enjoy working on a computer. It’s just not the same. I love sitting there and writing a page and being able to just take that page in your hands and look at it. I like the way words look on a piece paper.
So all of your song writing is on typewriter?
Yeah, quite a bit of it. Especially when I am writing on my own. Also, there are the ones that you’ve got to write when they come. You can’t tell the idea hold on and say I’ll develop it tomorrow. If it’s at dinner, you just got to write it on a bit of scrap or something. You have to pay attention to your original inspiriation for a song. If you follow that, it’s gonna lead you right to where the gold is buried. You have to respect it and pay attention to it. Instead of taking something and going, “Oh, I could make something out of this.” I like to follow it all the way to my gut. Your gut usually knows more than you do. I always follow my instinct as opposed to what I think as my knowledge. My knowledge just comes from, well, you don’t if what you are reading or what you are taking in is true or not. But you do know how you feel in a situation and you know that’s true. And usually that’s right—whether you want it to be or not.
411John Prine and Jim James come to the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, October 28, at 8 p.m. Call 963-9503 or visit ticketmaster.com.