John Prine is one of the truly gifted chroniclers of American life. His attention to detail, and witty, Mark Twain-esque sense of humor have made him a cult hero to thousands of devoted fans in the United States and Europe. His off-handed ability to twist lyrics is perfectly complimented by his limited, yet endearingly unique voice.
Prior to becoming an acclaimed singer/songwriter and CEO of Oh Boy Records, Prine spent time in the armed service and then took a job as a mailman in Chicago. While delivering mail he would pass the time writing songs. At night, Prine would survey the local music scene.
“One night, toward the end of 1970, I got up at an open-mike night at a club called the Fifth Peg in Chicago,” said Prine on his Web site. “There were all these amateurs getting up and they were terrible. So I started making some comments about it and the next thing I knew, somebody said, ‘Well, if you think you can do it better …’ I said, ‘I could.’ I got up on stage and played “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and “Paradise,” said Prine.
Shortly thereafter, Prine was “discovered” by country legend Kris Kristofferson, who described the experience in the liner notes to Prine’s self-titled debut album:
“Then he started singing, and by the end of the first song we knew we were hearing something special … Unlike anything I’d heard before … We went away believers, reminded how go- d –ed good it feels to be turned on by a real creative imagination.”
Although the album enjoyed a warm reception from critics and fellow musicians, it failed to sell many copies. Subsequent releases garnered similar results – accolades from the press but no sales receipts.
Undaunted, Prine continued to tour andbuild a devoted following with his charismatic, one-man performances. Fed up with behemoth record companies (Atlantic and Asylum) Prine and longstanding manager Al Bunetta, formed Oh Boy Records in 1984. Two years later, Prine’s German Afternoons was nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy. Arguably Prine’s finest work since his debut, the album boasted the Prine co-write, “I Just Wanna Dance With You,” which capable cowboy crooner George Strait scored a No. 1 hit with on the country charts in 1998.Finally, after a nearly five-year recording hiatus, Prine hit pay dirt in 1991 with The Missing Years, which won a Grammy and is Prine’s best selling album to date.
“I’ve sold 3,500 records and I’ve sold 350,000. It’s more fun to sell 350,000,” said Prine in a 1995 interview with The Courier Journal.
The Missing Years was produced by Howie Epstein (member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), as was Prine’s next LP Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, which came out in 1995. In 1997 Prine released an album of duets with celebrated females such as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Patty Loveless. Iris DeMent is paired with Prine for the album’s hilarious title track, “In Spite of Ourselves.”
In 1997, Prine also released a second spectacular live album, Live On Tour, which featured the stellar Lost Dogs Band backing him. (In 1987, the double album, John Prine Live was released.) For his latest release, Souvenirs, Prine dusted off some old favorites and rerecorded them in the studio.
Prine’s best material works on a universal level. Listening to his songs is like sharing a joke with an old friend – his ability to strike on a gut level is unparalleled. Prine posseses the sensitivities of a folk singer, a Hank Williams/Roger Miller-esque sense of humor and the thumping heart of a rock & roller.
Prine’s songbook has drawn the attention of R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Bette Middler and the Cowboy Junkies. In concert, Dave Matthews often performs a stirring rendition of the Prine classic, “Angel From Montgomery.” But, make no mistake, there is no better way to experience the unruly brilliance of Prine than going straight to the source. As his two live albums attest, Prine is an inspired performer who weaves laugh-out-loud tales in between beautifully crafted, back-porch masterpieces. Prine and his fine-tuned traveling band are not to be missed.