Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what's not supposed to be there. Here's 41 songs collected under the title of Great Days. There were many great days and many not so great days. I tried to turn them all into great songs. This anthology is dedicated to Gloria Stavers, the founder of 16 Magazine. -John Prine April 1993
One night in Chicago in 1971, at a popular North Side folk club called the Quiet Knight, Kris Kristofferson gave a young singing, songwriting ex-mailman and Army mechanic named John Prine one of the great celebrity endorsements of all time. "No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy," Kristofferson told the audience as Prine - nervous, only in his early 20's and holding a Martin guitar that he borrowed from Kristofferson - stood next to him, waiting to sing a powerful, bluesy ballad he's written about a drug-addicted Vietnam vet entitled "Sam Stone." "John Prine is so good," Kristofferson declared in his trademark barfly rasp, "we may have to break his thumbs."
It was one of Prine's first rave reviews, and certainly not the last. If press-clipping tonnage, the cultic good will of devoted fans, and the diehard respect of his peers can measure success, John Prine is a superstar. Commercial recognition, in fact, has come unfairly late to Prine. He was already two decades and 11 albums into his career when, in 1992, the music industry finally acknowledged what many of us had long taken for granted - that Prine is one of America's singer-songwriter treasures - by awarding him a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for his 1991 album The Missing Years.
But in the meantime, critics have wrung their thesauruses dry attempting to
do justice to Prine's talents: his distinctive, earthy recasting of America's
folk, country, and rock 'n' roll traditions: the way he can pull your leg and
tug at your emotions with his laconic wit and frank heart talk; his sharply
etched portraits of working-class men and women on the job, at play, and hopefully,
at the end of the day, resting in the right pair of arms.
Fellow songwriters and performers, like Kristofferson, have been working the Prine beat since day one. John Prine tapes are popular listening on tour buses. And his songs have been covered by an extraordinary range of performers, from pop icons like Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt to country institutions Tammy Wynette and Don Williams to British art- rockers Manfred Mann's Earth Band and maverick soul man Swamp Dog.
Prine recalls a particularly fine slap on the back that he got from Mr. Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, when they met for the first time in the '70s. "I introduced myself," Prine says. "He paused and then somebody said, 'John wrote that song about Muhlenberg County,'" referring to "Paradise," Prine's classic ode to his ancestral home in Kentucky. "It turned out that Bill and his brother Charlie came from the same region, across the river from Paradise. Bill said, 'Oh yeah, I thought that was a song I overlooked from the '20s.' What a compliment."
But in the beginning, John Prine wrote songs mostly for his own exercise and amusement. "I didn't think anybody was ever going to hear the songs I was writing," he insists. "I was just messing around on my own, doing whatever I wanted to just to see if it would work."
Even when he turned pro, Prine's creative urgency had a lot to do with the practicality of holding down a regular singing job. "I was so naļve, I didn't think you were supposed to repeat yourself," he admits with a laugh. "Swear to God, I used to write new songs on my way driving down to the club, thinking 'I gotta have a new one tonight because the same old people are going to be back.' Man, I was spitting them out left and right.
"The funny thing is, I consider myself to be one of the most undisciplined people in the world, let alone a songwriter. Totally irresponsible, I'd leave a song in a hot second for a hot dog or anything. If someone says, 'Hey, John, come here,' I'd stop everything. But, you know, it's in that same attention span where you dream up some of the best stuff."
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