Yet Diamonds In The Rough, which is one of Prine's most underrated records, was the beginning of a long zigzag search for the perfect recorded balance between his country and folk instincts and irrepressible rock 'n' roll drive.
"I just wanted to do Diamonds the way I was used to playing music at my house with Dave and Steve," Prine says now. "But it's taken me years to figure out how to balance those first two records. About every other record, after making a real studio or rock 'n' roll album, I'd come back and do a Diamonds In The Rough".
Sweet Revenge was a swing back to the expansive textures of John Prine but with a harder edge, born of Prine's own increased confidence. "Sweet Revenge" was a wry take on the ups and downs of critical favor, and "Please Don't Bury Me," at least as a title, said a lot about Prine's determination to make a life in music, not just a living from it. Producer Arif Mardin reassembled many of the crackerjack session players who'd worked on John Prine, and Prine sang with a grit and fire that suited the songs' lean wordplay and strength of will. The sole exception became one of his biggest hits: the agony column spoof "Dear Abby." "The studio version of that was cut with a band, and it was real stiff and humorless," Prine remembers. After everything else on the album was cut, Prine tried a solo acoustic version in the studio. Still no dice. So Mardin arranged to record a live version ant a college gig in upstate New York where Prine was appearing with Randy Newman. Bingo.
"We cut it once, live, and that was it. That was the power of the song, in the way people would turn their heads the minute I'd get to the first verse, the first chords. That was the reason we used the live version." The ironically titled Common Sense precipitated the first major crisis of Prine's career. Produced by guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & The MG's, it was brassy, bluesy, and - on the surface - sounded of Prine playing away form his obvious strengths. At least, that's what a lot of critics thought. In their defense, Prine admits that after the original rhythm tracks with Cropper's fellow MG bassist Duck Dunn and the Memphis Horns were completed in Memphis, Cropper took the tracks to Los Angeles and did a little too much sweetening.
But Prine stands by Common Sense as a necessary break from what he could see as a style trap. "Sweet Revenge was a really good record, but I didn't want to keep making the same album over and over, do another 'Dear Abby.' I was really reaching on Common Sense, trying to do some different things musically."
It was a dare and, on its own terms, stands up as a rowdy, compelling precursor to the more fully realized fold-rock success of Bruised Orange three years later, not to mention Prine's flat-out rockabilly tear on 1979's Pink Cadillac. But Common Sense, and the initial, chilly commercial response to the record, marked the abrupt end of Prine's honeymoon with Atlantic. "I said, 'I'm not making any money for you. Let me go.' And they did." Ironically, Prime Prine, a compilation of Atlantic material released by the label in 1976, recently went gold - 17 years later. Thus began the wilderness years, an extended breather from the rigors of major-label careering during which Prine toured extensively, building up a devoted following that to this day keeps him out on the road up to nine months a year.
"After Common Sense," he recalls, "it seemed like all there was to write about was what was going on on the road. Which was nothin'. The whole initial rush had left me. By the this time, I had to take a good look at everything." Ironically, Prine wrote one of his finest songs during that self-imposed studio exile: "Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone," a wry poignant observation on the loneliness of the long-distance warrior that should be required listening for anyone who thinks touring is all glory and no guts. Bruised Orange, Prine's first album in three years and the beginning of his brief association with Electra/Asylum, had a difficult birth. Prine spent "the summer of '77," as he later put it in the album credits, with former Sun Records engineer and producer Jack Clements cutting a version of the album that, alas, came to naught. "It was an acoustic rockabilly thing," Prine explained. "We worked on it and we had the greatest time. But at the end of it, we had no record to play." Instead of looking for a new producer, Prine turned to an old friend, Steve Goodman, who agreed to produce the whole record anew. "I knew Steve really liked me and my music. But I didn't know how much until he made that record. He more or less handed my songs back to me and said, "Here's what think of you.'" Bruised Orange, released in 1978, was the highest form of praise Goodman could have given, a marvel of taut, confessional Prinespeak rendered with a seductive pop-folk intimacy and, on droll boppers like "Fish And Whistle," a deceptive, whimsical bounce. It was a record that, at the time, flew with somber defiance in the face of new wave/stadium-rock fashion, and commercially, Prine felt the slap. Yet Bruised Orange was very much an album about the light at the end of the hurt, as Prine put it so vividly in the title track: "You can gaze out the window/Get mad and get madder/Throw your hands in the air/Say 'what does it matter?'/But it don't do no good/To get angry/So help me/I know." Prine had come out of the wilderness with his art, and his heart intact.
So what did he do next? He made a party record, the unapologetically raucous Pink Cadillac. "I wanted to do something noisy," Prine explains, "something like if you had a buddy with a band and you walked into his house and you could hear 'em practicing in the basement." On Jack Clement's suggestion, Prine got Know and Jerry Phillips, heirs to the Sun Records tradition via their legendary father Sam Phillips, to produce the record; together, they cranked up the echo and let the instruments leak all over the tape. Prine remembers doing some of his vocals "standing on the top of the drum booth," and Sam Phillips himself turned up to produce two tracks with a manic flair undiminished by his decade-plus away from the board. "When he used the talk-balk in the studio," says Prine, "he even had the slap-back echo on his voice. You felt like Moses talking to the burning bush."
The howls of protest that greeted Pink Cadillac have since, Prine says, turned into sheepish apologies, "I get people now coming up and saying they're sorry for not liking it then, that they've gone back to it and really like it now." And those who still swear by the follow-up, Storm Windows - a more relaxed and intimate affair featuring the crystal-ball satire "Living In The Future" and the sweet country caress of the title song - will be surprised to learn that half of the songs that ended up on that album were first tried out during those madhouse Pink Cadillac sessions.
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