John Prine Biography

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HOME OF JOHN PRINE all rights reserved  

reprinted by permission from OhBoy! Records

  "I was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on October 10, 1946. My parents were from western Kentucky. My father was a tool and die maker and the president of the Maywood United Steelworkers Union local. In school, the only thing I used to be able to do at all was when they gave me a free hand at writing dialogue. Writing nothing but dialogue. Everybody else, all these kids who were straight A students would just bang their heads against the wall and I'd just go, whoosh, and hand it in. The teacher would say, "Who'd you buy this from?" because I was a horrible student otherwise."

What was your introduction to music?
  "When I was fourteen, my older brother Dave taught me how to play the guitar. The first time I held down a chord and I didn't muffle it, well, I just sat there with my ear on the wood, even after the sound died feeling the vibrations. From there, it was me sitting there alone in a room singing to a wall. Dave taught me how to fingerpick too and then he introduced me to the people down at the Old Town School of Folk Music. There was a guy down there that in particular taught me how to play a lot of bluegrass licks. I've been playing now pretty much since I was sixteen and it's a wonder I was able to get through a song! I just kind of stopped the learning process. If I've gotten better, I imagine maybe it's because I have to, being on the road all of the time. But basically I just learned how to play a Carter Family song. I learned how to play "Freight Train," and just between those two I could sit and pick out a simple melody and put words to it. I guess I started writing as soon as I learned a couple of chords. I was still getting over that open-your-mouth-singing, moving-your-hand, and-playing-at-the-same-time, and it was easier for me to make up my own words. I'd just make up songs and then forget about them most of the time. I ended up recording two songs I wrote when I was fourteen: "Sour Grapes" and "The Frying Pan" for my second album Diamonds In The Rough."

What did you do before you became a professional singer/songwriter?
  "After graduating from high school in 1964, I got a job in the post office. I took it because it's about the best job that you need no training for, and you get health insurance. You get sick pay from day one. You start accumulating great vacation time. It was all those things. It's for people that don't know what they want to be. I'm sure some mailmen, that's what they want to be. But it's a good place for somebody that doesn't know what they want to do."

How did you become a professional singer/songwriter?
  "I had never planned on doing that. It was always a hobby to me. I only wrote songs to amuse myself or to get some girl's attention. I used to make them up and I'd sing them for however long and then I'd just forget them and make up some more songs. I didn't start writing them down until after I got out of the Army in 1967. Working at the post office afforded me the time to write on the route. I wrote some of those songs from my first album on my mail route. One night, toward the end of 1970, I got up at an open-mike night at a club called the Fifth Peg in Chicago. There were all these amateurs that were getting up and they were terrible. So I started making some comments about it and the next thing I knew, somebody said, 'Well, if you think you can do it better....' I said, 'I could.' and I got up on stage and played "Sam Stone," "Hello In There" and "Paradise" and people seemed to like it. A few months later, I decided to leave and I told the postmaster what I was gonna do. He just sat there and said, "Don't take your retirement pay because you'll be back." I said, "Oh, no. You don't understand. No matter what happens, I ain't comin' back here." I was making so much from singing three nights a week, I was making more than I was walking in the snow. Most people would have kept both jobs, I guess, and doubled their money, and I just quit and slept all week. When I quit the post office, I wasn't thinking "This is what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna make a record, sell a lot of records and be a star." I was just kind of going by my own time, just seeing how I felt about everything."

Describe how you met Steve Goodman.
  "After about the first four weeks I was playing, Steve Goodman heard about me. He'd been on the circuit for a couple of years. He came on over to check me out and introduced himself to me. Now, I'd been listening to the radio since I was three years old. I figured by now I could see the songs better than most people listen to them. The first time I heard Steve Goodman on the radio, I knew I was listening to a tall skinny cat with a little beard singing the best damn train song I ever heard, "The City Of New Orleans." Two months later, in the backroom at The Earl Of Old Town, I met a short stout fellow with no beard who wrote and sang the best train song I ever heard. The Lord works in mysterious ways."

Describe your "big break."
  "In the summer of 1971, Kris Kristofferson was playing a show in Chicago with Steve Goodman as his opening act. During his set, Steve played a song that I wrote. He convinced Kris to go over to The Earl Of Old Town to see me play. The Earl was closed. The door wasn't locked, but it was a Sunday night and we'd got through early. I was waiting around to get paid. So all there was was a couple of waitresses and the bartender, Gus, and the cook and dishwasher, and here comes Kristofferson with Goodman. The chairs were on the tables. So, we took the chairs down and I did a show for them. Before we knew it, we were invited to New York to do a demo for a record deal. I was basically undecided about going because I was kind of bewildered by the whole thing. I mean, once I got a job in the club, I'd sing three nights a week and sleep all week. To me, that was the perfect job. I was sure that somewhere down the line I wanted to do something. I wanted to do a record or something, but I was kind of going by my own time. So, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to go or not and take this offer of a plane ticket. Goodman said, "You ever been to New York before?" I said, "No." He says, "Let's go." That was basically it. We got to New York and things happened in 24 hours. We went straight from La Guardia down to Greenwich Village. Kristofferson happened to be playing The Bitter End. Kris brought us up onstage, and most of the crowd was press and record people that were down to see Kris. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records was there and I got up and did three songs. Wexler talked to me in the dressing room and asked me to come see him in the morning. I came over and he offered me a $25,000 recording contract. I hadn't been in New York 24 hours."

Describe the process of making your first album.
  "I was really nervous when I was in Memphis making my first album. I think the second day I was there I found out that these guys that are playing cut the last couple of Elvis records. I thought, "What am I doing in Memphis, Tennessee with Elvis' band?" Anyway, I can hear in my performances just how nervous I was. When I hear that first album now, it's just like a warm friendly sound. I'm almost kind of divorced from it except that I know I wrote the songs. I still love that record to this day and that little sound came about where they started taking everybody that they thought was country-influenced at all down to Memphis and cutting with that rhythm section."

Describe the success of your early career.
"I've read things where, like, "He must have been really discouraged and really pissed off not being a star" and that couldn't have been further from it. I think I was just feeling pretty cocky by that time in my career. A lot had happened in three years' time. At that time, I was rolling and the press that those records were getting was usually so great. I was just starting to realize that not everybody is afforded that. If nothing else I was getting great press, and I was going around playing. I was playing in large clubs, but turning people away, and small concert halls. They're the perfect size theaters, I think, anything from 1,000 to 3,000 seats. So I figured, what could be better than that? It wasn't like I wanted to go on -- I still don't want to have to go on -- to arenas. I don't think I'd like that. That, to me, isn't what I do."

Why did you leave Atlantic Records?
  "By the time the fourth record came out in 1975, Jerry Wexler had retired or at least gone to a job on the board and I always kind of looked to him 'cause he signed me to the label. I at least figured I could go talk to him about stuff when I was confused about something like, when I didn't use Arif Mardin for the fourth album, it wasn't like I didn't want to use Arif anymore. I just wanted to go somewhere different and try a different kind of recording with a different person. But they took it as a kind of a slap in the face. And at the time I couldn't really communicate with Ahmet Ertegun all that well. He was hanging out with the Stones and Led Zeppelin and I just kind of felt lost over there. So, we asked out of our contract and had to pay to get out of the Atlantic contract. I don't understand to this day because we weren't making any money for them."

How did you decide to form your own record company?
  "After I finished my recording obligations to Asylum Records in 1980, I just totally put on the brakes. I wanted to separate everything 'cause I was really tired of mainly the business end of it. I was wondering where the fun was with the music, this thing that I took on as a hobby years earlier that I used to get so much out of long before I ever sang a song for anybody else except myself. I wanted to get back to doing that and then I wanted to redefine everything that I was doing for a living. If it meant the only way I could enjoy taking the guitar down off the wall and sitting around playing it was to not be a recording artist, then I was wanting to do that."
"When I finally wanted to do a record, I just didn't want to go shopping for a label at the time. Also, it was a time when it wouldn't have been real easy to. There were several major labels that were talking to us, asking what I was doing and I just didn't want to start all over again like at Asylum. It might seem a bit confusing for me to say that they never told me what to do or told me to do anything different and me to still talk about them this way, but there's a lot of them I can't stand to be in an elevator with. It's the only way I can put it. It's like, "Why am I working here? I'll just move on to another factory and the factory would be my own factory because still I was looking at it that I made my living as a performing artist." So, that's how Oh Boy Records was born."*

*Note: Oh Boy Records was founded by Prine, his longtime manager and friend Al Bunetta, and Bunetta's associate Dan Einstein in 1984.

Describe the making of The Missing Years album.

"I had heard over the years that different ones of the Heartbreakers would be at my shows, like Benmont Tench or Howie Epstein. But I hadn't met any of them. Howie was riding on the success of the Carlene Carter album. My manager, Al Bunetta, and I asked him to come up to the office. He came up and he stayed all day long and didn't stop talking with ideas and everything. Nothing seemed off the wall. It all seemed like just great stuff. So when me and Howie talked, we both agreed, why don't we just go on in? He's got the studio in his house. I told him I'd found it hard to articulate over the years -- it didn't matter who I worked with -- exactly what I was looking for at the time. I said, "It's more of a matter of 'Let's go in and do it and it's either there or it isn't.'"
  So we went into his place with the intention of doing about two or three days and it turned into nine months. All my previous producers, they'd only get so close with the production. I guess they thought I knew what I was doing! I mean, that's the only way I can describe it, because Howie and me, we'd argue about the most minute things, until we got what we wanted. Towards the ending of making the record, Howie asked me to write more songs. It was a total surprise to me when he asked me to do that. And it turned the record around and put a different shine on it. It made the other songs sound better too. It just took the record to a different place and sequencing-wise and everything, it rounded the record out better. Going into the record, I had a lot of songs that were very sad, like, "she-done-me-wrong songs." We were very aware of that and we were trying to get around it as we were going along so the entire record wouldn't sound like that. Then Epstein called for more material. By that time, I'd had this amount of work behind me. I thought the record was done. So, in other words, something had been let off my shoulders and when I did go in to write these, I didn't think I had anything to write about. When I wrote "Sins Of Memphisto," I was thinking to myself, "He wants another song. I'll give him another song, like from as far left field as I can" and it turned out to be a really neat song."

To what do you attribute the success of The Missing Years?
  "It was definitely timing. It was the sound and production of the record that caught a lot of people's ears that weren't used to listening to me. It caught 'em enough so they'd sit down and give it a chance. And all the old fans seemed to take to it immediately on the most part. So, it's all that and a good bit of luck too. But when this one came out, and it started rolling -- I've heard this story from other artists, but I've never experienced it before -- it caught momentum and just kept going and going and going and actually selling records and getting radio play, which is something I hadn't dealt with since Asylum. Only radio play that I'd get would be these people that have a great little show that not a whole lot of people hear and it was just really amazing to me."

Describe the making of Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings.
  "Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings was started in November 1992. Howie Epstein and I spent a couple of weeks messin' around in the studio getting back to the "recording mode." We started with cutting "New Train" -- a song which I felt was a real positive song with a happy uplifting melody. Sort of reflecting the success of The Missing Years. I think we knew right away that it would open the record. Regardless of what the record was about. We messed around with some scraps of other ideas I had, trying various rhythms and tempos. I really had no new songs to speak of. We were just really anxious to at least get the next record started because of the overwhelming success of The Missing Years.
  It was an exciting time. No rules to follow. Just write the album and play it as we rolled along. The working title of the album was "As You Like It" taken, of course, from Billy Shakespeare's play. I figured if the people out there liked The Missing Years, then we'd give 'em something they would really like. We were really cocky. A few months later, we resumed the new record. I returned to L.A. from my first Australian tour. It was March of '93. I had no new songs. Just a bunch of ideas and the studio booked at two the next afternoon. At about four a.m. the previous evening I wrote "I Ain't Hurtin' Nobody" -- a song about a fellow, Lucky LaRue, who was walking down the street thinking about his sweetheart. Not making the world a better place, but certainly not screwin' it up. "He ain't hurtin' nobody, He ain't hurtin' no one." When I reached the bridge of the song, I looked out my window at Los Angeles at about 5:30 a.m. and figured about six million seven hundred thousand and thirty three lights were on. That's when I knew we were on our way to a new album."

 Since the release of Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings in 1995, Oh Boy Records issued Prine's second live album titled Live On Tour in April 1997, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. Most recently, the label released Lucky 13, a compilation that included tracks from the five artists who have been on the Oh Boy label as well as three previously unreleased Prine performances.
  In 1998, the John Prine/Roger Cook composition "I Just Want To Dance With You" was recorded by George Strait and became a #1 Country single. It was nominated by the Country Music Association for a 1998 CMA Award in the Song of The Year category as well as for Single Of The Year.