July 14, 2020

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7 Essential tracks from John Prine, folk music's Mark Twain

NEW YORK - Some people, the songs just come out of them. For nearly half a century, they tumbled out of John Prine like nothing.

His songs -- compassionate, funny, sage -- make up an American songbook that would be staggeringly intimidating if it wasn’t so warm and welcoming. He began -- with a dare at an infamous open mic -- a fully formed songwriter who through calamity and cancer never once wavered in his wry, homespun humanism. He was, anyone would say, as good as they come.

Prine was raised in the blue-collar suburbs of Chicago by parents from Western Kentucky. He learned guitar from his brother. He was a mailman for a time, writing lyrics as he delivered letters. The first song he performed -- when coaxed onto that Chicago open-mic stage -- was “Sam Stone.” It remains one of Prine’s most heartbreaking songs. In it, he sings with a deadpan hopelessness about the fate of a drug-addicted veteran: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/ Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”

In songs that straddled Nashville country and Appalachia folk and fell somewhere in between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, Prine sang about characters like Sam Stone. The lonely housewife of “Angel From Montgomery.” The elderly couple of “Hello in There.” He did so with humour and understanding, and a keen Mark Twain eye that saw us all for what we are -- and loved us anyways. On “Far From Me,” Prine, who grew up next to a junkyard, sang: “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/ Looks just like a diamond ring?”

Picking only a handful of songs by Prine is an errand that even a fool wouldn’t dare. But here’s trying.

— “Angel From Montgomery”: A masterpiece that will be sung for as long as songs are sung. Recorded on Prine’s absurdly packed self-titled 1971 debut album, it gained far greater renown when Bonnie Raitt covered it. It has one of the great opening lines: “I am an old woman, named after my mother/ My old man is another child that’s grown old.” Songs this good don’t belong to anyone. They belong to everyone.

— “Spanish Pipedream”: In this bouncy anthem about dreaming of a more pastoral life, the advice of a “level-headed dancer” rings as true today as it did in the early ‘70s: “Blow up your TV/ Throw away your paper/ Go to the country/ Build you a home.”

— “Paradise”: Prine wrote this one for his father, about a town in Kentucky. When Prine was serving in the Army in Germany, his father sent him a newspaper article about how a coal company had bought out the town, named Paradise. After Prine recorded it, he played a tape of it for his dad. “When the song came on, he went to the next room and sat in the dark while it was on,” Prine recalled. “I asked him why and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox.”

— “The Late John Garfield Blues”: A lot of Prine’s songs are so vividly told that they can seem like little movies. In this one off 1972’s “Diamonds in the Rough,” Prine uses the 1940s matinee star -- a brooding, working-class actor who died young but was a forerunner to Marlon Brando -- as a symbol of a sadness that “leaks through tear-stained cheeks.”

— “Souvenirs”: Prine said he wrote this on the way to an early gig on a Thursday night after a day of delivering mail. For a song that sprung from such a songwriting sprint, it holds incredible, elegiac beauty. It’s about memory and death. Prine sings: “I hate graveyards and old pawn shops/ For they always bring me tears/ I can't forgive the way they rob me/Of my childhood souvenirs.”

— “Summer’s End”: Prine released his first album of original material in 13 years in 2017, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” By then, surgeries had changed his throat, leaving Prine with a more gravely, weathered voice. He liked it more because he thought it made him sound friendlier. In the achingly tender “Summer’s End” -- a kind of bookend to “Sam Stone” -- Prine sings about a parent’s opioid addiction from the perspective of a child.

-- “Lake Marie”: This song, off 1995’s “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” was often the rousing finale to Prine’s live show. With its oft-repeated chorus — “We were standing, standing by peaceful waters/ Whoa, wah, oh wah, oh” — “Lake Marie” is Prine’s great goodbye song. In disparate tales that span decades, through love and death, it builds into a stirring, even cleansing jam and Prine’s farewell: “Awww baby!/ We gotta go now.”

See also: “Sweet Revenge,”“Illegal Smile,”“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow), ” “Mexican Home” and all the others.

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