By James Turano
More than 50 years ago, Prine returned home from an Army stint in Germany and began work as a US postal carrier. Daily and dutifully walking the unapologetic, diversely populated, middle-class streets of his west-suburban Chicago hometown, he mentally molded melodies and lyrics in his head to break the monotony of his Maywood, IL, mail route. It’s doubtful that while stuffing mailboxes in the shadow of the once-ominous, now-shuttered Maywood Park horse-racing track he could have imagined he’d ever win his longshot bet and join the ranks of the most influential and respected songwriters of all time.
But he did. Yes, it seems, as Prine once wrote, it is a big old goofy world.
Just five days after ascending Ravinia’s Pavilion stage for a June 8 concert, John Prine, 72, will be inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame. The hall, celebrating its 50th anniversary, was co-founded by the Tin Pan Alley hit-making composer Johnny Mercer (“Moon River”) to celebrate the contributions of the often-overlooked, ever-toiling songwriter. More than 400 musical scribes are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which since 2010 has called the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles home. In addition to Prine, the newest members comprise a varied list of accomplished composers, including Missy Elliot (“Work It”), Tom T. Hall (“Harper Valley PTA”), Jack Tempchin (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”), Dallas Austin (“The Boy Is Mine”), and Yusuf / Cat Stevens (“Peace Train”).
But the Songwriters Hall of Fame doesn’t just honor those who have already made history; it supports those who are making it today, such as this year’s Starlight Award winner, Halsey (“Without Me”). It also nurtures future talent through partnerships with schools at the coastal hubs of creativity, New York University and the University of Southern California, as well as its own series of events called the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions.
Unlike its rock and roll counterpart in Cleveland, the Songwriters Hall of Fame isn’t mired with inscrutable politics. The history of its leadership shows its bona fides: after Mercer, such figures as Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Webb have been presidents or chairmen, and now Hall of Famer Nile Rodgers holds that chair. “The first thing you need to know is, it’s about the song; the second thing you need to know is, it’s about the song; and the third thing you need to know is, it’s about the song. I’m very proud that, in my first year as chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we are recognizing some of the culturally most important songwriters of all time,” Rodgers said, introducing Prine and company as the 2019 inductees. “[They] represent diversity and unity across genres and gender. These are writers who in their time literally transformed music.”
Over his long and lauded career, Prine has in turns notched high levels of luck, success, and respect since his early days learning to play guitar at Chicago’s historic Old Town School of Folk Music. From there he began hanging and writing with fellow future local folk heroes Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc, also frequenting the city’s favorite folk haunts like The Earl Of Old Town, The Quiet Knight, and the Fifth Peg. An upstart Sun-Times reporter named Roger Ebert wrote an early rave review about the fledgling folkie, and then Kris Kristofferson “discovered” Prine after a 1971 Chicago performance. That all connected the dots to his first recording contract with Atlantic Records.
Many of Prine’s best revered songs, from “Sam Stone” and “Hello In There” (both written while on his mail route) to “Paradise” and “Angel of Montgomery” (given an emotive and definitive rendition by Raitt in 1974) have been covered by artists of all backgrounds and genres. And in addition to being a multiple Grammy winner, Prine has been praised by such lofty legends as Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, an early, ardent Prine admirer who in 2009 drolly described Prine’s prose as “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.”
Yet in the midst of all the pomp for Prine’s past, the present is proving to be just as impressive and prolific. Not only is there this month’s Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, but he also was a 2019 nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and his latest album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, added universally positive critical reviews to his CV along with another three Grammy nominations. Amazingly, the long-player entered Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart at number five, the highest reaching debut of any John Prine album in his 48-year career.
It’s the strength of the songs on and the public enthusiasm for The Tree of Forgiveness—the first album of original Prine material in more than 13 years—that brings him back to Ravinia to add to the venue’s rich folk music history.
The Tree of Forgiveness continues Prine’s prime songwriting motivations. The album’s 10 songs feature fresh takes on familiar Prine topics, now filled with well-earned life lessons about mortality, loss, and love, as well as science, greasy diners, and a musical eternity. “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” follows an aimless, desperate drifter; “TheLonesome Friends of Science” derides Pluto’s planetary demotion; “Summer’s End” is a stark, longing invitation—and Prine’s favorite on the album, a high distinction he revealed on NPR’s Fresh Air; and the closer, “When I Get to Heaven” is his high hope for a heavenly hootenanny.
Prine’s artful songwriting draws upon real life to create memorable, weathered characters who struggle with or contemplate difficult, relatable, everyday situations and obstacles. He infuses these characters and their tangled stories with keenly turned phrases of hope, emotion, honesty, and human frailties and foibles. But most definitively, Prine brings zest to the mundane and urgency to the ordinary. In another interview for NPR, Prine explained how he inserted his personal imprint while recently writing with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys: “I was trying to gather songs up for The Tree of Forgiveness, and I liked a song we wrote, ‘Boundless Love,’ except I didn’t think there was enough of ‘me’ in it. So I called up Dan and said, ‘Instead of the word, ‘food,’ I’m going to put ‘frying pork chops’ in, and I’m going to replace the whole second verse with, ‘My old heart is like a washing machine, it bounces around till my soul comes clean.’ And that’s what I did. I ‘John Prined’ the song up. And it came out really pretty.”
Though Prine first emerged during the 1970s’ folk revival, his quirky compositions have consistently crossed many musical terrains over his more than 20 albums, including country, blues, and rock. For example, his 1991 Grammy-winning album The Missing Years has a rock flavor, produced by the late Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. It features a Springsteen cameo on “Take a Look My Heart” and includes the standout tracks “Picture Show,” “All the Best,” and “Everything Is Cool.” The 1995 follow-up Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, also produced by Epstein, had a more bluesy rock tone and centered on “Lake Marie,” the almost-instant Prine standard of divorce and disillusion. On 1999’s country covers collection In Spite of Ourselves, Prine shared a microphone with a host of talented singers including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and, most memorably, Iris DeMent. And injecting spice into the egg-nogged holidays, 1994’s A John Prine Christmas tickled and warmed the heart as Prine brought his brand of yuletide cheer to standards like “Silver Bells” as well as his own paradoxical “Silent Night All Day Long.”
In 2010, this writer attended a special benefit concert Prine performed for a sold-out and energized crowd in the cramped and creaky auditorium of his high-school alma mater, Proviso East in Maywood. Prine played with pride and gusto, mistily recalling his school days, sharing childhood memories of the surrounding neighborhood, and revealing the local inspirations for some of his best-known songs.
“Fish and Whistle,” for one, references a job the 14-year-old Prine had at Skip’s Fiesta Drive-In, a burger joint in Melrose Park across the street from the iconic former amusement park Kiddieland, where he scraped dried frozen custard off the parking lot. And the classic “Lake Marie” refers to the chain of lakes along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, a frequent escape for the teenaged Prine and many young Chicagoans.
And through these various verbal snapshots—spoken and sung—Prine subtly and cleverly connected the dots of his life and his career to his songs.
It’s all about the songs. ▪
James Turano is a freelance writer and a former entertainment editor, feature writer, and columnist for national and local magazines and newspapers. He is also a Chicago radio personality and host, heard regularly on WGN Radio 720AM.