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The Paradise Syndrome

Somewhere in Paradise, there's a street named after John Prine.

Now if that scanned better, it could almost be a line from a song. The blend of pathos and grandeur in that image might even be said to do justice to its subject. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about that, because it happens to be true. In Paradise, Kentucky, you'll find a John Prine Avenue, named by grateful citizens after the songwriter who made the small town famous to a few thousand record-buyers.

Loudon Wainwright III has namechecked Prine too, in his riotous 1992 talking blues "Talking New Bob Dylan", in which he recalled the early-'70s scramble to fill up the Bob-shaped vacuum in the singer-songwriter firmament.

"I got a deal and so did John Prine/Steve Forbert and Springsteen all in a line/They were looking for you, signing up others/We were NEW BOB DYLANS!!"

Prine knows Wainwright's song well, and he laughs as he remembers the New York Times article that started all the fuss. "I don't know what the exact headline was, but the idea was, ladies and gentlemen, here's the new Dylans! And it was Loudon, myself, Elliot Murphy, Springsteen and Keith Sykes, a buddy of mine who lives in Memphis now. They had our pictures there, and our bios. The article was almost like a horse race or a lottery to see who was going to be the new Bob Dylan. And things just took off from there."

Except that, in Prine's case, very little actually "took off" other than a career as a major cult figure and a songwriter's songwriter. At his peak, he's been able to ship 350,000 copies of a record, and in 1992 won his first Grammy Award for the album The Missing Years (though many would argue that 1978's Bruised Orange was even more deserving). His songs have been covered by the likes of Bette Midler, Bonny Raitt, Tammy Wynette and John Mellencamp. But to most of the world he's a name known only dimly, if at all.

And yet, even though he's never scaled the dizzy heights of stardom, Prine has managed to keep working continuously for 30 years, helped in no small part by his decision in the early 1980s to release his material on his own independent label, Oh Boy Records. Nowadays, going the independent route is just one of the options open to the budding musician, but back then it was a much riskier venture. Prine, with characteristic disregard for the consequences, only did it so that he didn't have to deal with major record companies any more. (Despite the "New Bob Dylan" excitement, neither Atlantic nor Asylum Records ever allocated him a substantial promotional budget.) But going the cottage-industry route has probably enabled the Nashville-based Prine to live more comfortably and securely than many high-tax-bracket rock stars. Clearly, the grass-roots life suits him.

Trawling through the messages left by fans on some of the websites dedicated to Prine, you get to build up a picture of his following: reassuringly normal folks, with reassuringly normal jobs, bound to the singer by an immense loyalty that seems to get stronger with age. Moments of discovery, such as dropping in on a Prine concert because the name sounded vaguely familiar, or stumbling across an eight-track cartridge left in a house by its previous occupant, are recounted like special, life-changing epiphanies.

It's easy to see why Prine's warm drawl strikes such a chord in people all across America. A daft bugger when he lets his hair down, he's a man with a strong enough dose of country in his veins to write songs for grown-ups, celebrating their moods or comiserating with them. He's melancholy, but he's funny too, compassionate and self-deprecating with the driest of wit. In his book of interviews with rock's greatest songwriters, Written In My Soul, Bill Flanagan put Prine in the section entitled "Heartland Voices", alongside Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan, Chuck Berry and bluesman Willie Dixon, a select few artists that Flanagan felt had particular resonance for blue-collar America.

John Prine was born in Illinois in 1946 of parents who had moved there from Kentucky. For his father, it was either that or go down the mine. "It was a rural area, there wasn't really any sort of work there at that time, in the late 1930s, unless your dad owned a store, or he had a trade and you could inherit that. Otherwise, most of them had to work in the coal mines. So he went up to Chicago to work in a factory, and he always raised us as if, when he made enough money, he was going to take us back to Kentucky. So we spent our summers down there with our relatives and we kind of felt like we were from both places."

To Prine, Kentucky was the most romantic lace maginable. "I just loved the whole idea of it. Being out in the country, and this little town called Paradise I remember writing a song about. It was all kind of magical to me, Walt Disney-like."

There can hardly have been a greater contrast with bustling, urban Chicago, where his steelworker father, a devoted union man, worked his way up to president of the local chapter. The Prines were raised with the idea that "you don't have anything if you don't have a union". Naturally, one asks Prine if he thinks that's the secret behind the common touch that forges such connections with audiences. "I guess so," he says. "I guess it is the way I relate to people when I'm up on stage."

It was a long time before anyone saw John Prine on a stage, though. Chicago is one of the great hotbeds of American popular music, a powerhouse of jazz, blues, R&B and folk. But it was country and folk that the Prine family loved most, and when he was taught guitar by an older brother who was into "old-timey folk-traditional things", Prine's fate was sealed. "And as soon as I learned guitar, it occured to me that it was easier to write a song than to learn how to sing somebody else's. So I just gravitated naturally to that kind of music - and I've been too lazy to change it ever since!"

With Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Roger Miller as his role models, the teenage Prine cranked out odd little songs that he thought were too weird to play to anyone but close friends. But by the time some friends dared him to take the floor at an amateur night in 1969, this very reluctant performer had honed his skills to such a level that the three songs he played stopped the show. A gig attended by Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka led to a deal with Atlantic Records, and there began a career that veered between acoustic folk, country and more rock-orientated albums, with masterpieces liberally strewn among them. Even his 1970 debut boasted songs like "Hello In There", about neglect of the elderly, and "Sam Stone", a song about a drug-addicted Vietnam vet (Prine was drafted in 1966 and spent two years in the army in Germany) which showed up most of his songwriting contemporaries as lightweights.

Stylistically, he keeps his fans on their toes, not deliberately but just because that's the way the songs come out. His current album, In Spite Of Ourselves, is his first set of covers and consists of country duets with a variety of female singers including Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and Melba Montgomery.

"I like duets in general," he says. "I even like some from musicals. I like the idea of the girl saying a couple of lines, like a dialogue going back and forth, and then they break into song together. So they were always favourites of mine. George Jones and Melba, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn ... so I had a lot of stuff to choose from."

As she's doing every night on his current tour, Iris DeMent will be joining him at Celtic Connections, reprising the songs she sang on the album, and others besides. Since meeting and marrying an Irishwoman, Fiona Whelan, Prine has gradually eased his way into the Celtic circuit, though rather more in Ireland than here.

"We played in Glasgow last June and I really enjoyed that," he says. "Such an enthusiastic crowd! It was great, and it was well worth waiting all those years to be able to come over and do that, and we're looking forward to coming back."

There were worries that Prine would never play again a couple of years ago, when a tumour appeared on his neck, but it was successfully removed in time, and he has a clean bill of health. But neither that experience, nor the arrival of his two young children, has changed the working habits of the man who once described himself as "one of the most undisciplined people in the world", a man who "would leave a song in a second for a hot dog".

"I always like what I write," he says, "but I avoid writing like crazy, I avoid it like the plague. It's something I enjoy once I get immersed in it, but I'll do just about anything to get out of it."


"I never  thought  there  was  a  chance  in  hell  that  I'd  ever  make  a  living  as   a  singer."


Was country mainly what you heard in your formative years? "My dad and mom were big country music fans, so they played a lot of country music around the house. I grew up in Chicago, so I had equal doses of R&B and rock n roll, but I always had a favourite spot for country. I started playing guitar at 14, learned a bunch of country songs just to please my dad - he wanted me to sing Hank Williams songs and Roy Acuff - and in doing so I ended up liking country music even more so. So when I started to write I started writing in that vein rather than trying to write R&B and rock n roll. I started writing folk ballads and country ballads."

But the stuff you wrote at the very start was, by your own admission, kind of weird, wasn't it? "Yeah. [laughs] It wasn't mainstream, that's for sure."

Have you released some of these early ones? "Actually I did. I found some songs - I forgot I wrote 'em - I wrote 'em when I was about 15, 16. I put a couple of them on my second record back in 1972. It was about 10 or 12 years after I wrote 'em. And they were exactly like the songs I was writing then!"

So where was that all coming from? Or is there no answer to that? "I don't know, I had a natural ... I was a pretty poor student, I couldn't concentrate on my studies much, like a lot of kids. But if they asked you to write a story that you didn't have to read up on, then I could just sit down and make up anything. I had a pretty good way with words and my imagination was pretty free. I certainly never thought I was going to grow up to be a songwriter. It was just something as a hobby I did."

Were you a reluctant performer? Did you need quite a bit of encouragement to get up there? "Reluctant only because I never thought there was a chance in hell that I'd ever make a living as a singer. I thought I was being a realist. I loved singing and I loved playing the guitar, but I didn't think it sounded at all like people sound when you see 'em on TV or hear 'em on records and stuff, so I didn't really put much hope in it. And when I finally got a job doing it, that was all because I got up on stage as the result of a dare at an amateur thing. I did three songs and got offered a job. Thirty years later I'm still doing it."

Who were your heroes when you were young? Was it people like, as you say, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff? "Hank Williams Sr was a big influence on me wanting to become a songwriter, him and Bob Dylan equal amounts. And also Roger Miller, I liked the humorous stuff he wrote. And when I was first starting to write I'd say I was a combination of the three influences I was trying to shoot for."

Have you ever had a big major record company promotional push? "Actually no. I had two different major labels. I started my own label about 16 years ago. I was with Atlantic for four records

and Asylum for three records. They kinda give you a big push when you're doing your first record for them and from then on it's a big secret when they let your record out. So I decided after a while I really didn't need that if I was going to be doing what I was doing. I just needed to get my record out there."

Were you quite ahead of the pack in going independent? "It kinda looks that way. Now that stuff has gone that way. At the time it was just self-serving, I just wanted to get my record out and I didn't want to deal with the major labels, cause you either get a raw deal or you get tied up with them. I never got tied up with them - I always delivered however many records I was signed for and we split company. But probably the worst thing is being on a label and not being able to record for anybody else and they won't put your records out either, so you're in limbo. I know a few artists who have to sit for six, seven years at a time because they can't record for anybody. I had a good solid following when I went out to do my live shows, and the people stuck with me because they didn't care if I didn't have a record for three years or something, they still turned up in force every time I came to their town. So I just appealed directly to them and told them I'd started a record company. They supported it and it took off from there and years later independent records became the thing to do ..."

If you hadn't gone that route, do you know where you might be now? Possibly a lot less comfortable? "I probably would have gone on to several other major labels and right now either be praising the next label I was going to be with or cursing the last one [laughs] ! I'd still be performing. It became more of a hindrance than a help to me to have a major label contract. For some people it's like insurance - they don't feel they're validated unless they have a contract with a major, but for me, I just took a good look around at what I had and the positive things about it, this core audience that really wanted me to come to their towns every year and sing, and I knew that they'd buy my records if I kept making them the same quality as previously, and you can't beat that."

Presuming that you're in a comfortable position right now, what's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome to get there? "Well, my music isn't for people who aren't already tuned in to wanting to listen something that's based heavily on the lyrics. It's not the kind of stuff that you can go out and hit somebody over the head with, so you've got to wait for the audience to come to you, and I got plenty of time."

Some tremendously successful people, like Bruce Springsteen, have praised you very highly. Does it rankle a bit that you're not in the same league, commercially? "No, I never cared to play arenas. If you want to be that famous, and sell that many records, you gotta work at it. I only put so much work in

per week or per month, and the stuff that I do I like to remain high-quality. I don't know, I'm not that ambitious. In my mind, I'm playing the ideal places for music - halls that are built for concerts and symphonies ... anything larger than that, at least with my kind of music, it gets kind of lost."

Has anyone ever tried to foist the mantle of spokesman on you? "I don't know who I'd be a spokesman for!"

Neither do I, but talk about spokesmen for a generation often seems to congregate around singer-songwriters. "Well, I think that probably all stems from Bob Dylan."

But it's not something you've had to contend with? "No, not at all. I managed to duck that."

Now, for a few years in the 80s, I think I'm right in saying, you just wrote songs for other people ...? "No, I was still recording. It was when I was first getting my record company off the ground and I made two or three records ... The biggest obstacle with your own label is getting distribution. All the major labels are in all the stores already, but to get your record in the major record chains is different, takes a little while. I've never written songs for other people, people have just taken them off my records and recorded them."

Was the start of the New Country phenomenon good for you in any way? "Oh, no, I ain't got nothing to do with them. I just live in Nashville. I'm a fan of the old country music. This stuff they're doing now is mediocre pop music."

Could you at some stage have been a rock n roll performer? In fact do you see that much of a difference between what you do and what a lot of nominally "rock" performers do? "I don't see that much of a difference. It's pretty much the same."

So what's different: the marketing? "Yeah. Marketing makes a whole lot of difference. They have a problem when a major label can't market you to people who buy a certain pair of jeans or buy a certain car. I sell records to people of all age groups, and they don't fall into a certain age group or a certain income group."

Do you enjoy keeping your fans on their toes, stylistically, maybe surprising them?

"I feel like songwriting comes first, except in the case of this new record - this is the only one I've ever done with other people's material on it - but when Iwrite a song I don't plan too much ahead of time what I'm going to write. So if I write a song, when I come to record it I just try to stay true to the song. If it sounds like a rock'n'roll song I get a rock'n'roll band in and record it that way. And if it sounds like a country song I'll do it that way. So I'm just a slave to whatever the muse is."

2000 Alastair Mabbott

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