Some four decades since his remarkable debut, John Prine has stayed at the top of his game, both as a performer and songwriter. Recently honored at the Library of Congress by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, he has been elevated from the annals of songwriters into the realm of bonafide American treasures.
Long considered a “songwriter’s songwriter,” Prine is a rare talent who writes the songs other songwriters would sell their souls for. Rumor has it singers and producers queue up in front of his home waiting for the next pearl. Some have said out loud they would take his shopping list. Evidence of this is the long list of songwriters who have recorded gems from Prine’s extensive catalog, including Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, the Everly Brothers, John Denver, Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon, Ben Harper, Joan Baez, and many others.
“He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fingers,” Kris Kristofferson once said after being justifiably stunned by a Prine performance.
“Beautiful songs… Nobody but Prine could write like that,” Bob Dylan famously remarked.
Rolling Stone once described Prine’s unique product this way: “Early-American primitive painting, bittersweet and filled with humor and Gothic irony.”
John Prine returns to Telluride for the 39th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he is one of the opening night closers, appearing Thursday night, 7 – 8:30 p.m. just before Alison Krauss & Union Station takes it to the finish line. Expect the whole enchilada from Prine: quirky jukebox songs, barroom songs, hobo songs, and love songs, mostly about grassroots working class Americans.
Aficionados know Prine’s lyrics by heart. Devotees almost always recite the words of “Illegal Smile” to the bemused artist strumming his guitar onstage.
Prines’ tunes are not folk. They are not blues either. There are some country elements, themes of the down-trodden and lovelorn, but it’s not true blue Nashville. There are rock elements to Prine’s music, but not the hard-driven variety. It is sure not world music or New Age. Country folk filtered through electro-acoustic rock is about as close as it gets to his out-of-the-box sound.
“Most of my songs,” he once told me,”are too bizarre for real careers. I definitely don’t write hits on purpose, though some of my music like ‘I Want To Be With You Always’ are straight ahead.”
Prine just sounds like Prine.
Years ago, pre-Telluride Inside…and Out, I interviewed John Prine for the local daily. Reviewing my notes, I thought fans might find it interesting to read some of quotable quotes, for example, his spin on the bizarro lyrics of “The Sins of Memphisto” –– and that’s Memphisto, not Mephisto, the devil we know. Where did this character come from?
“I like the sounds of words more than the meaning,” he explained. “You know when you put ornaments on a Christmas tree know you put the star at the top, then one doodad here, another there. Finally everything gets balanced all around. My lyrics are not about the individual words. You’ve got to look at the whole mass of my stories. Sometimes I think: ‘What a mess.This doesn’t make sense at all.’ But I usually let my stream of consciousness go wherever it takes me.”
Turns out the whole middle part about the fellow with his hands on his watch and his mind on the bus that goes all over town was from a poem he had written, “Girl on the Wall.”
“The meter just fit right in.”
Sometimes, Prine explained to me, he has to “stick an ashtray and a chair somewhere in the story to anchor the thing otherwise it would be like a satellite out there just flying aimlessly around and around.”
“I had a big imagination as a kid. It was always something I trusted. Imagination was my best friend, so I nurtured it always as best I could.”
On shopping lists:
“I don’t make shopping lists. I just look around the store for things to make pot roast or spaghetti and meatballs. Writing songs can take me 30 minutes to a couple of days to years.
First impressions of Telluride:
“I played the Opera House back in the early 70s. Me and Jack Elliott in the summer of 1973. I had never heard of the place before. Hit a rain storm in the mountains. Got to town in time to see a double rainbow. I came back in 1979. Played Bluegrass about four years ago. I keep telling people how beautiful Telluride is…”
Check out John Prine on You Tube: