Rattle off a list of the top five American songwriters, and chances are, you'll name John Prine before exhausting the fingers on one hand. Reducing Prine's songs to a top five is much harder: "Paradise," "Angel from Montgomery," "Sam Stone," "Illegal Smile," "Hello in There," "Spanish Pipedream" — and that's just his debut album.
Prine wrote several of his most famous songs while employed by the Postal Service, jotting down lyrics as he delivered the mail. He was a blue collar working man, observing the people around him and writing songs to amuse himself. Fortunately, when people heard his songs, they wanted to hear them again (he played an impromptu late night set for Kris Kristofferson early in his career, and Kris insisted he start again from the top when he finished).
The enthusiastic support of his fellow songwriters continues today. At this year's Newport Folk Festival, Prine led a headlining set that culminated with the entire day's lineup of musicians on stage, singing "Paradise." He's befriended and mentored the next generation of songwriters, including the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who will open for Prine on Friday at the Performing Arts Center. Prine sat down with Auerbach last summer to co-write seven songs, one of which is the title track of Auerbach's new LP, Waiting on a Song. Prine even appears in the song's music video, purchasing booze for teenagers outside a gas station.
At 70 years old and twice a cancer survivor, Prine saves his energy for performances, but he did invite the City Paper to interview him via email. Here are our favorites from the exchange (edited for brevity), direct from the singing mailman:
City Paper: Are there songs you've gotten tired of over the years, but then brought them back into your repertoire?
John Prine: Most of the songs on my first records are songs that I still sing every show. They seem to have stood the test of time. Over the years my voice has changed and I've had to change keys and some things around to be more comfortable singing them on stage. So, in a way the songs have changed but they still talk about stuff that is happening today. I sure didn't know that when I wrote them!
CP: Any that have surprised you in how well they've held up in modern times?
JP: The obvious ones like "Sam Stone" and "Flag Decal." I honestly thought those songs were just dealing with what was happening then in the 1970s — that we would have maybe moved on, or learned better by now. Even "Paradise," that I wrote for my father — a song about how strip mining tore his town down — the issue has never really gone away. People still relate to that song today just as fans did 40 years ago.
CP: Have you ever met somebody and realized very quickly that they might end up in a song?
JP: I meet interesting people every day. Sometimes they end up in a song and sometimes it's a composite of a few different people. It's always easier to tell a story if you have a 'real' person at the center of the story.
CP: I've heard you say that songwriting is a real chore and you don't really enjoy it. It can't have been that way in your mailman days, at least, right?
JP: Yeah, I think when it became my job it became more difficult. I'm not exactly the most disciplined person in the world so I have to make myself do it. There are so many interesting distractions. It doesn't take much to talk me out of working and going to have lunch instead! Sometimes the songs that I have to write, to please a producer or just because I know the record deserves one more good John Prine song, are the tough ones to write, but I generally end up liking them and singing them every night.
CP: Do you dig these "Tribute to John Prine" type billings, like at Newport this summer, or does it make you feel old?
JP: When this started happening a few years ago it was a little uncomfortable for me, maybe because I've always just gone out and sang my songs for my fans, for 40 years now, and I always want to give them the best John Prine show I can. It took me a little while to understand that these young artists really did grow up listening to my music and that the songs mean something to them, and to their audiences too. Since then I've gotten to know some of them. Justin Vernon is a wonderful fellow. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have become good friends with me and my family. I recently did a small tour in Ireland with Sturgill Simpson. The fans loved it. We played small — very small — clubs and town theaters and had a great time.
CP: Is a new original album still happening?
JP: Oh yeah it's happening — talk to my label!!
CP: I'd love to report that you're in good spirits and good health, if that's the case?
JP: I feel great. I'm a lucky guy. I have great doctors and a family who keep a close eye on me. I have two grandchildren who live near us in Nashville. My fans still want to hear me and come to shows. What could be better?
CP: I read that you used to run into Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark at Brown's Diner. That had to be the codeine days for those guys, right? Drugs aside (or not), any memorable conversations or adventures with either of them?
JP: Townes and Guy were both good friends of mine and really fine fellows. Yeah, we had a good time but we also did what we had to do: write songs, play shows, make records. I miss those guys and others too, like Cowboy (Jack Clement). Nashville is not quite the same town as it was. Maybe that's a good thing but we sure had a lot of fun back then!
CP: A few years ago, it briefly became the norm for bands to go on Kickstarter or wherever and ask fans to fund the creation of an album, but it sounds like you did that in 1981 when you started Oh Boy [record label]?
JP: When we started Oh Boy we didn't set out to crowd fund — that term was not around then. When the fans heard that I had set up my own label we got letters from many of them saying how happy they were for us, and by the way, here's a check for 10 bucks, please send me the new record when it comes out. The first record I made for Oh Boy was a Christmas 45 — red vinyl — I think we might reissue that.
CP: Any fond memories or thoughts about Charleston?
JP: We love to visit Charleston, especially now that my son, Jack, lives here. He's a songwriter and performer and really enjoys being part of the music community here. He has a show in town the same night as me. That's kind of cool except he won't be able to jump on stage with me for a song! We're definitely looking forward to the show and are delighted to have Dan out with us too.