“When I woke up this mornin’/Things were lookin’ bad,” he sang on the first song on his eponymous debut album in 1972 over basic chords. Many songwriters would’ve stopped right there. In the next line, however, comes the kicker: a bowl of oatmeal tries to stare him down — and wins! To be a successful absurdist is to observe a monotheistic faith in precision. On John Prine (1971), the late singer-songwriter got away with zingers less talented artists would’ve pulled their eyeballs out for, couched in melodies as homespun and casual as the prose Prine chiseled as accompaniment. Who else besides perhaps Loudon Wainwright III in the seventies would’ve summed up the depredations into which a heroin addict had sunk with the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” in “Sam Stone”? Perfection and inevitability are synonymous — among songwriters Prine made it so.
American music, like its fiction counterpart, can boast of dozens of marvelous debuts followed by moldy crackers. Although he endured an artistically parched late seventies, Prine released no bad albums. He couldn’t. Credit — blame — a lack of ambition. Listeners will find neither Phil Specter collaborations nor syndrum accommodations. Driven, if that’s the word, by a professionalism that meant filling forty minutes of tape with aperçus observed by an unblinking inward eye, Prine eschewed flash because the songs already gleamed. 1973’s Sweet Revenge, end-to-end his best album, has Arif Mardin in the credits but you wouldn’t know it — unless you loved Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie, released by a colleague whose commitment to the strangeness of the American vernacular matched his. Sandwiched between the debut and Sweet Revenge is Diamonds in the Rough, a collection succeeding by virtue of its lack of a through-line. Take “The Frying Pan,” a banjo-led number about a wife whose note informs her husband she’s run off with the Fuller brush man; he sounds euphoric, as if he admired her daring. The organ-drenched title track of Bruised Orange (1978) summons life in rural America with an absence of nostalgia worthy of Dawn Powell. Last December I ordered Aimless Love (1984): a minor thing, one of those times when it’s like he’s hiding from the listener. But “The Bottomless Lake” has another of Prine’s rumpled melodies, wedded to the shaggiest of dog stories: a picnicking family, nibbling on chicken legs, waiting for an apocalypse no less amusing for being, that word again, inevitable.
Renewed by the CD-era boom and the admiration of younger musicians, Prine was more visible in the 1990s. This was the era when fans were most likely to see a new album displayed in the music section of a Barnes & Noble or Borders. The Missing Years (1991) and Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (1995) had souped-up productions courtesy of the Heartbreakers’ Howie Epstein. Too souped-up; the electronic bibelots sparkles like Christmas lights in April. Fans embrace “Lake Marie”; I prefer “Quit Hollerin’ at Me” and “Humidity Built the Snowman” (killer key change!), both of which take advantage of Epstein’s instrumental steroids and find new ways of accepting anger. Lost Dogs even has a Marianne Faithfull duet , akin to Catherine Deneuve working with Ethan Hawke (dear reader, they did). But 1999’s In Spite of Ourselves, title greased with irony, proved how collaboration buoyed him. This covers album with one marvelous original sports Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, and, most snugly, Iris DeMent, in a series of hilarious, goofy duets. Comparing it to a Jones-Wynette project is too facile. Prine and his partners come off too normal; they’re performing their parts like long-running sitcom stars (hence the only misfire, a “Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back the Years” version sung by Lucinda Williams as if she were Pavarotti singing “Nessun Duoma” at the Grand Ole Opry).
Almost felled by a cancer that resulted in the excision of parts of his neck and tongue, Prine slowed down in the new century. But he still preferred throwin’ his brain in a hurricane: to boost his immune system, doctors suggested he exercise by running up and down a staircase — the sort of thing one of Prine’s characters would admit to in a song. 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness had songs as powerful as any he’d written in the last quarter century, with “”Lonesome Friends of Science.” offering “I live down deep inside my head/Well, long ago I made my bed” as epitaph, sure, but also signpost. Self-amused, as apt to self-aggrandize as Emily Dickinson, Prine was an authentic American weirdo, kin to the Elizabeth Bishop who wrote: “One day I dyed a baby goat bright red/with my red berries, just to see/something a little different” in “Crusoe in England.” He could’ve been a sodden grump, one of those who, as he put it, “don’t fit [and] get the only fun they get/from people puttin’ people down.” Life is too hard to take seriously; instead, Prine saved the seriousness for his jokes.