The 1980s found John Prine back in the wilderness and glad to be there. He swore off major label record contracts for good, determined - along with his longtime manager Al Bunetta - to take control of his music and the business of his music. Between 1981 and '83, Prine settled into a comfortable cowriting groove in Nashville with name tunesmiths like Roger Cook, Donnie Fritts and Bobby Braddock that yielded a wealth of material for the next album, Aimless Love, as well as Prine's first big country hit, a Prine Cook song called "Love Is On A Roll" that singer Don Williams took all the way to #1. There was also a brief collaboration with John Mellencamp up in Bloomington, Indiana, that produced the songs "Jackie O," which appeared on Mellencamp's Uh-Huh, and "Take A Look At My Heart," which finally popped up on Prine's The Missing Years.
Aimless Love was finally released in 1984, the recording complicated by tight finances (it was cut at various Nashville studios, ostensibly during demo sessions), the mechanics of setting up Prine's own independent label, Oh Boy (the initial release was a 1982 Christmas single, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"), and Prine's habitual low-speed approach to making records. "I'm always slow going into the studio," he confesses, laughing. "If I'm talking this month about going in, if I'm in there three months later, it's a wonder."
The album was no small wonder in itself, combining the tender mercies of Bruised Orange and the fireplace recital qualities of Diamonds In The Rough, But that cozy country-folk ambience, with its beguiling echoes of fading twilight on the front porch, artfully masked the gentle ironies and prickly resignation in songs like "The Oldest Baby In The World" and "People Puttin' People Down" (which was actually produced by Steve Goodman during the aborted sessions for a Storm Windows follow-up back in 1981). The pain underscoring the album was palpable; in the back cover photo, Prine shared a laugh with a dog over the latest issue of True Love magazine. Still, in true Prine fashion, true love was never really down for the count. Even in "Unwed Fathers," the payoff was one of quiet forgiveness: "Your daddy never/Meant to hurt you ever/He just don't live here/But you got his eyes."
The feeling that he was back on track with Aimless Love was short-lived; Prine suffered a great loss when Steve Goodman died of leukemia on September 20, 1968. It was something he always talked about, a dark-humor thing. We'd go to airports, and he'd look up at the word 'terminal,' shake his head, and go, 'Why do they have to have that sign up there?' It was like that for years.
"You'd think you'd be halfway prepared for it when it came. But he might as well have gotten hit by a train. It was a big loss for me. He was always pushing me. And I'd always hear his new songs, didn't matter what time of night or day it was. He's ring me up, go 'Got one!' put the phone down, and start playing me this new song. He wouldn't even ask me if I wanted to listen! I miss all that stuff. I miss him now just as much as I did back then."
The version of "Angel From Montgomery" in this collection, a haunting duet with Bonnie Raitt and featuring David Bromberg on guitar, was recorded at an all-star memorial concert for Goodman held in Chicago in January 1985 and released later that year as Tribute To Steve Goodman on Goodmans own Red Pajamas label. Also included here is a version of Souvenirs, a song that originally appeared on Diamonds In The Rough and which was performed by Prine and Goodman in the 70s for the TV show Austin City Limits which speaks volumes about their creative empathy and friendship. Whenever we got up onstage, Prine notes, wed play Souvenirs.
German Afternoons, released in 1986, was a return to the be breezy, Nashville au natural sound of Aimless Love, sandwiched by two nods to Prines Kentucky bluegrass heritage with the opening cover of the Carter Familys Lulu Walls and, at the end, a lovely, high-mountain rearrangement of Paradise from John Prine. The album also featured a number that quickly became a Prine concert standard, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness, a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall way clock.
Nominated for a Grammy, German Afternoons marked the beginning of a long Prine sabbatical from studio activity. The only new Prine releases for the rest of the decade were a novelty single, Lets Talk Dirty In Hawaiian, issued in 1987, and a double concert album, John Prine Live, which followed the next year and was taped mostly during a three-day stint at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California. Oh Boy needed product, and as Prine points out, We didnt have another artist to put out. The idea was to have me and my guitar, telling stories and doing songs and buying me some time until I could get into the studio again.
That didn't happen until a good two years later. One day, while Al Bunetta and longtime
Prine associate Dan Einstein were brainstorming over prospective producers at Oh Boy
headquarters, the name of Howie Epstein came up. Epstein, the longtime bass player in Tom
Pettys Heartbreakers, had just finished producing Carlene Carters 1990 album I
Fell In Love. More important, Prine recalls, Id heard for years that he and
[Heartbreakers keyboard player] Benmont Tench would show up at my shows. And I heard all
the guys in the Heartbreakers played my stuff on the road. So Al called Howie. And before
he could even hang up the phone, Howie was in the office. Four hours later, he was still
there, talking to my manager about my music. Al calls me up and goes, You wont
believe this, he has every answer in the world, and he has the energy of Goodman.
So Prine agreed to meet Epstein at the latters home studio and cut songs for three days. If we didnt like it, it was just tape, Prine says. Nine months later, we were still working on it.
September 1991, the results were released, aptly enough, as The Missing Years
(although the title song, Jesus The Missing Years, was
inspired not by Prines own disappearing act, by the middle 18 years in
Christs life, unrecorded by history). Famous friends and fans - including
Bruce Springsteen. Tom Petty, Benmont Trench and Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers,
David Lindley, and the ever reliable Bonnie Raitt chipped in with
sterling vocal and instrumental contributions. Prine, in turn, anted up with
a parcel songs that, for melodic charm, lyric whimsy, and emotional punch, were
every bit the equal of those on John Prine. And this time, the music
industry, and the general public, noticed.
More than two decades after he took the plunge on that open-mike night at the Fifth Peg, one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters in America is finally becoming quite a popular one too. And being the kind of guy he is, John Prine is happy to share the glory. I never cared one way or the other. Except when Bonnie [Raitt] won. I was extremely happy for her. But to get the Grammy for that album was particularly nice.
The best thing about it, though, came afterwards. It was like everybody whos supported me down the years, came to the shows and all, they all felt like they had won a Grammy too. I could tell that they were really proud too. Kind of like We did it. It was a great thing to watch.
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