Editor’s Note: John Prine was born in Mayfield, Illinois, but, as the saying goes, he got to Texas as fast as he could — and as often as he could. In fact, given how often he was featured on Austin City Limits, you might have assumed he was a Texan. ACL executive producer Terry Lickona has called Prine, who appeared on ACL nine times, “integral to the essence” of the show. And on Oct. 26, Prine was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. (See our story covering the ceremony.)
“To me, Prine always felt like part of the Texas constellation that includes Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, possibly Rodney Crowell … that gave birth inspirationally to Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and so many more,” writes Holly Gleason, whose Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine was released in September. “He wasn’t hungry for acclaim or press attention. He wanted to write songs he was proud of. He wanted to play for the people who wanted to hear it.”
Prine’s connection with Austin was particularly special. He had so many friends here — among them Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Rosie Flores and Alejandro Escovedo, who once gifted Prine a pocket watch. “Every time I saw him after that, he’d ask me if I knew what time it was,” Escovedo says. “I’d shrug, then he’d always present the watch I’d given him.” Likewise, Prine’s influence was undeniable — beloved by so many, especially by younger Texas songwriters like Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Amanda Shires.
On his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine said he imagined heaven as a place where he could “smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long” — and hopefully get a cocktail. “I figure if heaven is a bunch of people in white robes singing mediocre songs,” he quipped, “I’m gonna need a drink when I get there.”
What follows is a review of Gleason’s collection of interviews, articles and assorted ephemera. A Q&A with Gleason for Texas Music is also available. — Tom Buckley
PRINE ON PRINE: INTERVIEWS AND ENCOUNTERS WITH JOHN PRINE
Holly Gleason, Editor
Chicago Review Press
“John Prine hated interviews,” Gleason writes in her introduction. “Hated them. Hated talking about himself, hated taking apart the songs.”
Gleason, who first met Prine in 1985 and remained close to him until his death in 2020, from complications caused by COVID-19, would know. But you wouldn’t draw that conclusion if all you had were this collection of more than three dozen articles, the vast majority of them interviews with the man himself.
True, Prine appears consistently reluctant to get into the weeds about his own songwriting process. But that appears to be mostly because he shared the stupefaction that most artists admit when coaxed to talk about their own work.
Asked in 2002 by Alex Rawls where songs start for him, Prine answers, “I don’t know. If I did, I’d move there.” Fourteen years later, and probably every other week in between, he was again being prodded to speak on process. “I don’t know what the rules are,” he allowed. “I don’t like to get so close to it. Every once in awhile it’s safer to go for a hot dog.”
Though he claimed to be ignorant of songwriting’s rules, he knew what not to do. Before he shares a pork roast recipe for Ronni Lundy’s 1991 cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, he tells her, “I can’t have my total concentration on my writing. I very rarely write behind the guitar. Cooking’s one of the best times for me to write.”
He wasn’t a fan of most protest music. In a 2005 interview with Poet Laureate Ted Kooser before an audience at the Library of Congress, Prine called most protest songs “self-serving. They’re written for that crowd that already agrees with you. You’re preaching to the choir.”
When he himself worked his way in song to a political point, Prine preferred to begin with details and what’s shared. “You got to keep in mind that politics don’t come first, even for the people whose politics you don’t like. Maybe they got the same kind of white shirt on, you know? That might be your song. If you’re looking for the big picture, you got to get a really small frame sometimes.”
If he was reluctant to shed much light on his own songs, he was generous and perceptive about those of others. He was a great admirer of Chuck Berry. “He told a story in less than three minutes, and he had a syllable for every beat. Some people stretch the words like a mask to fit the melody. Whereas guys who are really good lyricists have a meter so the melody is almost already there.”
Along with the cookbook, Gleason includes an interview that appeared in Hot Rod (Prine was a car nut), a script excerpt from Billy Bob Thornton’s 2001 film Daddy and Them, featuring dialogue involving a character based on and played by Prine, the transcript of a TV interview with Bobby Bare (Bare: “How would you describe your style of writing?” Prine: “I write the way I do because of a vitamin deficiency”), and John Mellencamp’s surprisingly affecting presentation speech on Prine’s receiving the 2016 PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award.
The standout piece is a 1999 essay by Robert Christgau, which he later chose to include in his 2019 best-of collection, Is it Still Good to Ya? It’s unusual both for its analysis of Prine’s songs and for Christgau’s nervy decision, after having interviewed Prine, not to include Prine’s own words.
But that’s because Christgau’s focus is not on Prine but on Prine’s music. “His realism, his surrealism, and his laugh lines all shoulder the fundamentally celebratory function of language in love — especially language born from the spirit of music,” Christgau writes. “I could quote Prine’s big houseful of first-rate work forever, make you wish you knew him by heart the way I did.”
The articles span 50 years, from Roger Ebert’s famous 1970 you-are-there profile of the singing mailman in the Chicago Sun-Times (“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight.”) to Prine’s last in-depth interview in late 2019, which was published in Mojo in 2020.
The quality of the writing and interviews varies widely, but even when the questions and commentary are dull, Prine’s words usually save the piece. For most writers, the ideal format for a Prine article might be straight Q&A. I wish more of the journalists here had yielded the floor more often.
What comes through most persistently is Prine’s bone-deep modesty, native intelligence and wry humor. After the birth of his first child: “All of a sudden I’m an expert on this. If I find out somebody else has a baby, I’ll corner them and show off my knowledge.” On his innocent childhood: “I was such a good kid, childless couples used to borrow me. You could just sit me somewhere and I’d be there an hour later when you came back.” On his vaunted perceptiveness: “To be able to have those insights about people, that doesn’t mean you have any answers. All you’re able to do is give the police a good description of the guy who robbed the place.”
There are curious omissions — nothing from Rolling Stone, for one — that are probably due to expensive permissions. Gleason’s introductions to each piece provide context but would have been helped by a serious prune. And I would have preferred a simple chronological arrangement to the loosely topical one … something that would have shown more plainly how Prine’s observations did and didn’t evolve.
But, like his songs, Prine is great company. For the moment at least, this is the next-best thing to an autobiography.
Cover photo by Robert Maxwell