Turn It Up: John Prine: The bard of Old Town returns

February 26, 2010

John Prine: The bard of Old Town returns

Prine

John Prine (Courtesy of Jim Shea)

John Prine is flat-out one of the best songwriters of the last 40 years, a voice so distinctive that even Bob Dylan is a fan. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree,” Dylan said last year.

“Proustian existentialism?” Prine says with a wry chuckle. “I can’t even pronounce that. But it’s great to hear that from him. I don’t go bowling with Bob Dylan, but I run into him every 10 years here or there. From the first album, I knew he liked the songs. After all this time to get a quote out of him is pretty flattering.”

Prine, 63, has been living in Nashville since 1980, but he forged his style in Chicago. While delivering mail in suburban Maywood, he became a key member of the Old Town School of Folk Music scene that spawned Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and dozens more in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So it’s only fitting that he should return March 6  to the Old Town venue to perform a benefit concert.

From his home in Nashville, Prine reminisced about how his Chicago years shaped him as songwriter. An excerpt of our interview follows.

Q: You go way back with the Old Town School of Folk Music.

A: It’s a great place for people to learn how to play a stringed instrument. It’s a daunting thing for a lot of people to take music lessons. They want to teach you to read music first, and I‘m sure I never would have learned to play if I had to go that route. My older brother Dave told me about the school. Dave attended in the late ‘50s and got pretty good on guitar. I saw him play one evening and it amazed me. He taught me three chords and a couple of Carter Family songs, and he took me down to the school in 1961 when I was about 14. He took me to Ray Tate’s class; Ray was teaching a lot of bluegrass licks, and they put me in advanced beginners. I was way behind the guys in Ray’s class, but I was hooked. I probably had ADD considering how I did in regular school. I couldn’t concentrate on anything besides daydreaming. My brother saw this in me, and he saw music as a way of getting through to me. He was teaching himself violin and he needed a rhythm guitar player who could stand all the squeaking and squawking as he was learning how to play. He learned how to play pretty well and I learned how to keep time playing with my brother.

Q: It never occurred to you that this could be a career?

A:
I was learning to play at Old Town, but none of my friends knew. I found it easier to make up a song, rather than learn and play my favorites, cause it never sounded as good as the original. I got into Rambling Jack, then Dylan. That closed the book, this guy writing all of his own stuff. But I never thought I could make a living out of it. I went into the Army and was posted in Germany. I had my dad mail my guitar to me. One other guy in the barracks had a guitar, a guy from Wyoming who sang Lefty Frizzell songs. We’d be up at 3 in the morning after everyone came home from a night on the town drinking German beer and we’d sing every song we knew. After the Army, I was delivering mail in Maywood during the day and hanging out at the Old Town school, which was now on Armitage, at night. The Fifth Peg opened across the road where Ray Tate and all the teachers and students would go afterward. What happened there after school was as important as what happened in the school. At the Fifth Peg they had an open stage once a week. Regardless of how good you were you could get up there and sing.

Q: And you wrote songs while you were delivering the mail?

A: I wrote “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” on the route. When you’re a mailman on the same route for a couple weeks there is nothing to do, you just try to drop the right mail at the right house and make sure you’re on the right street. Once I delivered the right addresses to the wrong street and I had to come back at dinner time and knock on everyone’s door and ask for the mail back. I likened the mail route to being in a library without any books. You just had time to be quiet and think and that’s where I would come up with a lot of songs. If the song was any good I could remember it later and write it down. I might’ve had the melody for “Hello in There” before I wrote it, but otherwise the words to me had music to them, the métier of the lines had an arrow pointing which way to go with the music.

Q: How did you develop the courage to go public with those songs?

A: Too many beers [laughs]. None of my buddies back in Maywood or Melrose Park knew I played guitar or wrote songs. I didn’t have a sounding board, so I had no idea if what I was writing was any good or not. But one night [in 1969] at the Fifth Peg I was sitting with some students watching the open-mike performers, and I made a remark about the people that were getting up to sing: “This is awful.” So the people I was sitting with said, “You get up and try.” And I did. I remember playing “Sam Stone” and the crowd just sat there and looked at me when I was done and I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble,” but it was like they were stunned, and then they applauded. Later that night the owner of the Fifth Peg asked if I could come back and play a couple of shows a week. I didn’t have many songs, but I started writing like crazy. I got paid 50 cents a person and about 12 people showed up the first night. Almost all of them came back for the next show, and half brought a friend or two with them. Then Roger Ebert wrote about me in the paper and that busted things wide open. I had people waiting outside in line on Armitage, and I’d do two or three shows a night.

Q: But you really weren’t thinking about this as a career?

A: I didn’t think the people who did this with their records in stores were anything like me. I didn’t think it was possible for people where I came from to make a record in New York City and go to Hollywood. I thought you had to be from France or have money to get into the entertainment business.

Q: When did you start thinking you could make records?

A:
Bob Koester from Delmark asked if we could get together for lunch — my first show-biz lunch. We went for a burger somewhere, around the corner from the Jazz Record Mart on Grand. He offered me a one-album deal, said I could sing Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers covers, “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” and three or four of mine. I wouldn’t have to tie up all my own stuff. Then he took me to the basement of the record store. “I’ll show you what the record business is about,” he says. There was a desk and a closet. In the closet, he had about 1000 cardboard covers for a Muddy Waters album with a picture of Muddy standing next to a cyclone fence. It looked great, except Muddy has his fly open. They didn’t discover his fly was open in the picture till they printed 1000 of them. They had to retake the picture — guess they didn’t have air brushes back then. And Bob says, “And that, John, is what the record business is about.” And he was right!

Q: And yet you turned down Delmark?

A: I ended up turning him down. I knew Delmark was a great label that had great people on it, and here I had chance to be on that roster. So by me saying no, that’s when it clicked: I must have something in mind that I’m not telling myself.

Q: And that led to your signing with Atlantic [which released his first few albums]?

A: Till I had the deal with Atlantic and I was traveling the country, I didn’t realize how much artists go through to get a record deal. They’d done everything but twirl a baton. That’s show business! I had that fortunate evening when Kris Kristofferson came down to see me sing [at the Earl of Old Town in 1971], and I got signed right away. It was in the stars or something for me.

Q: And then they made you sit on a bale of bay for your first album cover.

A:
I had never seen a bale of hay in my life! I tried to explain that to Jim Marshall when he took the picture in his studio in San Francisco. We were making small talk when a pickup truck arrives with three bales of hay. He said, “I’m gonna do a head shot of you and the straw will make an interesting background.” Next thing I know it’s about five days before the album comes out and I’m at the record company in New York and I saw the cover photo, and there I am sitting on a bale of hay. And I pipe up that while I like country music, this looks like “Hee-Haw.”  But it was too late to change it, and I’ve been making up for it ever since.

Q: Your last album, “Fair & Square,” came out in 2005. Any plans to put out another one?

A: I’m writing very slowly for the next record. They used to come so fast, but I’ll do anything to get out of writing these days. It used to be my hobby, my way of getting away from world. I always like to have patience with songwriting. I don’t like to put a record together unless I have songs that are staying with me. Once I get 10, I’ll go into the studio.

Q: Having a family does tend to change your priorities.

A: Kids change everything about your whole lifestyle. I’ve got two [teenage sons with his wife, Fiona]. I used to be a total nighthawk. I used to stay up till the sun went down. Now I need to be more structured. I’ll set aside next Tuesday so I can write, and when Tuesday rolls around and if I don’t feel like it, I don’t force it. I got enough craft to sit down and write a song if that’s what I said I’d do that day, but if it’s not inspired by anything, it won’t stay with you.

Q: Has living in Nashville changed your approach at all?

A: In Nashville it’s hard to avoid co-songwriting. If you have a beer with someone, the next thing you know they’re calling you up to cowrite. Some have turned out good. Any of the songs I’ve ever written that were country hits [“I Just Want to Dance With You,” “Love is on a Roll,” “Unwed Fathers”] are songs I couldn’t have written myself. You have to have a certain structure, and the Nashville guys I cowrite with know it’s gonna be barking up a wrong tree to pitch six-minute song to a producer looking for a single. If you can write a really good song in three minutes, get to the point, it’s pretty neat. By myself, if I stumbled across a “hit,” I don’t think I’d know it.

greg@gregkot.com

Posted via web from The LP Revival Blog

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~ by lprevival on February 27, 2010.

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