John Prine

“You know who you are – and you can really use that to your advantage.
You’re not settling for something, you know…
It’s a good thing to know who you are:
You know how to walk into a room, where to sit down
& everything except how the play ends.
I called this record Fair & Square because the songs all came from the gut –
From somewhere between my heart and my gut –
The intention was honest and straightforward; nothing more, not thing less.”


            It’s been nine years since John Prine – Grammy-winner, former mailman, iconic American songwriter, chronic dreamer, child of the Midwest, grandchild of Appalachia – made a record. And in that time, the man whose given us “Sam Stone,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Hello In There,” “Blow Up Your TV,” “Unwed Fathers,” “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody,” “Angel From Montgomery,” “Souvenirs,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” and “The Great Compromise” made a full-immersion commitment to living that precluded the watching-the-clock school of record making.
            “I can’t believe it,” says the gruff-voiced songwriter with that low rumbling laugh. “Everything’s just been flowing… Days roll into each other… You’re writing songs… You’re thinking you’re making a record… Then you’re not sure the songs are really talking to each other. When you’re not paying attention to how long it’s been – and you’re on the road, raising your family, just being in your life – suddenly, it’s nine years! Who knew?”
            Still listening to Fair & Square, it’s obvious that whatever the ever humble musician was doing, it was time well-spent. Not only has he grown more comfortable in his skin, many of the facets that’ve always marked his writing – the open-armed humanity, the gentle compassion, the willingness to shine a light on ordinary tableau – has deepened. There’s a sweetness to songs like the frolicking “Glory of True Love,” the fond “My Darlin’ Hometown” or the aching “The Moon Is Down.”
            “I just don’t care any more,” Prine says of his sentimental side. “I don’t care how sentimental I am…In fact, I love it and I want to celebrate it, because it’s the way I am. After all, it’s a real thing…I think if it’s bad sentimentality, it probably isn’t a real thing, it’s just bad. But sometimes, things that some people think are corny – like things that are classics -- are real; they’re classic because they are. So why pretend it’s something else?”
            Not that John Prine’s grown overly sentimental. He’s not only unearthed a newfound sultriness on the pining’n’kindling “Long Monday,” the exultant “She Is My Everything” and the purring “Morning Train,” his sense of the moment remains strong. His always clear-eyed social commentary remains every bit as lucid – and perhaps even more incisive.
            Whether it’s the straight-up jingoistic indictment of “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” the allegorical “Taking A Walk” or the indictment of voyeuristic culture “I Hate It When That Happens To Me,” the first songwriter to be asked by the United States Poet Laureate to read at the Library of Congress isn’t afraid to illuminate the inherent contradictions in the way some of us walk through this world. With plain verbiage and gentle melodies, these songs speak volumes about hypocrisy, greed and a reality of abdicating living one’s own life for tabloid tv..
            “As far as being political, it’s a real, real strange climate right now,” offers the man whose songs have polished small lives until they shine. “There’s nothing at all going on – as much as there was during Viet Nam… and even with all the demonstrations, it’s not as bad as now. There’s this whole are you or are you not an American – and you’re not an American if you don’t agree with politics in office.
            “It really felt like the people who spoke up with a dissenting opinion were getting condemned, which was the most un-American thing…and it was done in a real strange way. Though the thing I dislike even more than the policies is that I can’t find any humor in this naturally… The more this administration did, the less humor you could find in it”
            The politics that seeps into Prine’s song is just one facet of the journey to Fair & Square. In addition marking Prine’s debut as a producer – a job he shared with engineer Gary Paczoza, it also marks a new comfort to the singing style of the craggy-voiced troubadour.
            And the culprit for this new found ease of performing is a rather unlikely reality. Not some high-powered vocal coach or breakthrough technique, but the cancer of Prine’s neck.
            “My voice dropped after the surgery for the cancer,” Prine allows. “I don’t know if it was that, or the radiation. I’d never even heard of neck cancer and I had to have radiation across the throat area to heal anything touching where the cancer was… which was my vocal chords.
            “My voice dropped, so the first thing we had to do was change the key on a lot of songs I’d been comfortable with – and they became totally brand new. I’d never have bet that would happen; but it totally changed my attitude about performing…it got really interesting again
            “You know, for better or worse, I’d never liked my voice much before. It was a bit too twangy, and when I sang, I used to go up a register – and I don’t even know why. In fact, I was getting real curious to get in the studio to hear it ‘cause my singing was getting more and more comfortable, so I was looking forward to recording to hear it under a magnifying glass.”
            The magnifying glass might be too strong a word for it, as Prine often had moments of wondering about “the new producer.” Though he’s always had a hand in the texture of his records from Aimless Love on, he’s never been hands on – and this marked a challenge for the homey writer.
            “Sometimes I’d go home at night with the exact same feeling you have with a new producer: You think you trust them, but then you work a few days and you’re not getting any energy back – and you’re convinced it’s not working. That’s the place where you wanna call’em up and say, ‘Hey, you’re great, but it’s just not happening…’
            “We started this a couple times… I’d get a few songs in, then think it wasn’t going anywhere. In the end, I think it was the guy singing them who made it all fit. I didn’t hear it exactly ‘cause I was so close to it. That’s what a ‘producer’ sees…The artist gets almost a cloud over it that the producer can see through.
            “I could write the songs; I could sing the songs; I could produce the songs – and still not hear what was going on with them. I figured out you really have to sit down and listen. It’s what a lot of producers miss -- that listening part, because the songs will tell you everything, right down to what to do.”
            With Prine’s natural sense of grace and humor, he committed himself to the process – even when it meant sometimes calling players and asking for things they’d already played. “Oh, yeah,” acknowledges the producer, “we’d put up the tracks, then realize we’d already done that, which made you know it was the right call.
            “I didn’t mind putting stuff on that I wanted to find out about… We’d literally have people come in and I’d say, “Play from the beginning to the end….’ Maybe we’d use some of it, all of it or realize that was the wrong idea, but we’d figure it out.
            “And I couldn’t have done that without Gary being there. Because we’d get all those tracks up, and  it became very clear what this monster was. Because we’ve got it all there, and the tracks would start telling you what to do. Gary’d start pulling stuff out – and this record emerged.”
            Fair & Square is certainly a jewel in the crown of John Prine’s catalogue. Personal without being intrusive, sweet without being cloying, aware without haranguing, it marks the very best work of a man whose songs are strong enough to warrant the first invitation to a songwriter by the Poet Laureate of the United States to read at the Library of Congress.
            It’s that reverence for humanity – and simplicity of intention – that has made John Prine one of America’s most enduring songwriters. Not that the chuckle-and-whatever artist with the twinkle in his eye would ever sit still for that kind of praise.
            “I don’t know about any of it,” he demurs. “It’s like when people tell me it’s been nine years since my last record – what was I doing? Well, you know, time just kind of slips away… I can’t even believe it. Time’s just flowing, and I’m not even sure where it went – me scooting through the days, that turned into well, nine years.
            “I’ve been on the road. I’ve been with my family. I’ve been writing songs… and I’ve been, uhm, producing a record. I guess it takes times to get all these things right. Although,” he says, pausing for wry set-up, “I know I’m not going for perfection – unless there’s such a thing as the perfect mistake.”
            In John Prine’s world, there are no mistakes, of course. Just the perfection of moments seen, polished, worn with warm affection or golden clarity. So it is that Fair & Square is here, finally, and certainly worth the wait.