When the owner of a Chicago folk club asked the mailman who’d come into open mic night if he’d like to come back and play on his own set, the postman asked how many songs he’d need—and went home and wrote enough to take the job. And when his best friend/co-conspirator brought Kris Kristofferson to hear him, the pair of unrecognized folkies found themselves on a plane to New York City, then onstage at the Bottom Line, ending with record deals for both.
It seems perfect for a punch line, except the best friend was Steve Goodman, who’d give the world “City of New Orleans” and “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” and those songs became John Prine, perhaps the definitive post-Dylan singer/songwriter debut. Produced by Atlantic’s legendary Arif Mardin, the blues/folk/rock/country hybrid was one of the most potent collections of short stories about forgotten people and twists of life since O. Henry.
Forget the hay bales on the front cover—or the farm boy façade of the denim-clad young man. Tautly written sketches about the forgotten elderly (“Hello in There”), the silent yearning of a middle-aged woman shipwrecked in a marriage grown cold (“Angel From Montgomery”), the isolation of the post-Vietnam vet for whom there’s no refuge, only ghosts and pain and an addiction acquired over there to cope (“Sam Stone”), love between the unwanted (“Donald and Lydia”) and vitriolic commentary about war (”Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”), the numbing effect of consumerism and mass media (“Blow Up Your TV”) and the destruction of the environment (“Paradise”) offered a gripping look at the blur that destroys us.
Any two alone would’ve made the album stand-out—each of the above is a standard so well-embraced many believe them to be public domain from their pervasiveness. Together they are the tip of an iceberg that also includes the combustive-ly lusty “Spanish Pipedream,” the alternative- reality-acceptance-equalizer “Illegal Smile,” the-drift-of-desire “Far From Me” and the OK-where-we-are “Pretty Good.”
Prine’s gift—beyond that basic wordplay that opens canyons of insight—is a voice that’s the essence of consoling and believability. He wouldn’t do you wrong; he’d only shoot you straight. Like your oldest flannel shirt, that creaking hinge voice is a blanket of warmth and comfort—and even these washed-out souls are better for being seen in his gentle vision.
Equally warm are the arrangements: long on fiddles and acoustic guitars, but with the urgency that was rock and protest music; John Prine was perfect for the times—even invoking the first “new Dylan” sobriquet. If Dylan was more steeped in Appalachia and embraced a clearer-eyed expression, perhaps John Prine would not be, in many ways, the more fertile, long-term player…
In this moment, though, the future was unseen. Just a handful of songs, a guy you’d like to call your friend and the postcards of lives that shouldn’t—like the people embracing this record—be for naught. In the long haul, that promise made with these 13 songs has been fulfilled over and over again. This is where the road begins…