Behind the Song: “In Spite of Ourselves,” John Prine and Iris DeMent

Before the turn of the millennium, it was unclear if the late John Prine would ever sing again. As he readied his 13th studio album, he was recovering from surgery and radiation to treat his throat cancer. To assist him in the project, the beloved singer-songwriting talent enlisted a cast of female vocalists to join him on a 16-track collection of duets, In Spite of Ourselves. Produced by Jim Rooney, the album reflects the formative country influence that shaped Prine’s career chronicling the human experience in a language we could all understand.

In Spite of Ourselves was the first thing I wrote that resembled work since my cancer. I had so much radiation in my throat area, I couldn’t sing. I could talk, but I didn’t have any power in my voice. I’d been kicking around the idea of a female duets record for a while, so I made a list of two or three women per song until I had a list of about 35,” Prine reflected about the record on the 20th anniversary in 2019. In the liner notes booklet, the artist shared, “I made a list of my favorite girl singers, and the first nine I called said ‘yes.’ I nearly fell over.” 

John Prine | In Spite of Ourselves | September 1999 via Oh Boy! Records

Released in 1999, the album features Trisha Yearwood, Connie Smith, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, Patty Loveless, and Lucinda Williams, and his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine. But Prine’s favoritism shines through on the tracklist which features four tracks with Iris DeMent—Bobby Braddock’s “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” Felice Bryant’s “We Could,” Onie Wheeler’s “Let’s Invite Them Over,” and Prine’s lone songwriting credit, “In Spite of Ourselves.”

During his cancer recovery, Billy Bob Thorton approached Prine about being featured in a film he was making, Daddy and Them. Thorton and Marty Stuart were piecing together the music and asked Prine to write a song. He came up with what became the title track, “In Spite Of Ourselves.”

With masterful simplicity and lyrical quip, the track endures as something quintessentially Prine. Rooney recalls the first time Prine played him the song in his car:

“I was laughing because the song was so funny, such a quirky John Prine song; I was crying because John was singing,” he shared on the album anniversary. “I just looked at John and said, ‘You’re back! Your voice is back!’ and he smiled his biggest ever John Prine smile. It was one of the happiest days of my life. We soon jumped right back into the studio to finish what we had started nearly a year earlier. We had learned a big lesson in patience.” 

The pivotal moment cemented Prine’s continued contribution to the great American Songbook. Though his characteristically graveled voice now held a more permanent rasp, the artist pressed on for over two decades until his untimely passing in April 2020 due to COVID-19 complications.

When he wrote the song, he told NPR that he had DeMent in mind. “I kinda had her voice in mind when I was doing it because I know Iris can be a little sassy and she could tear this guy down. I called and explained I was going to send [it to her]. I told Iris, ‘I want you to listen to this and just see. It’s got a few questionable things in it that you’re gonna have to say. So you just tell me whether you would want to do it or not. We’ll leave it at that,'” he shared in the 2016 interview. “So I didn’t hear from her for three weeks. Nothing. Finally, I called her and I said, “Iris?” And she said, “Yes?” I said, “Well?” And she said, “Not while my mother’s alive!” Then she ended up doing it anyway.”

Respected as an industry patriarch but loved as a goofy uncle, fans will remember John Prine for the humor and ease with which he approached life and country music. Though his catalog is stylistically poignant, Prine’s legacy lives on through spirited irreverence in lines like He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays / I caught him once, and he was sniffin’ my undies.

To create the official music video, Prine’s Oh Boy Records put out a call to fans to send in photos of their “big door prizes”—meaning their significant others. The final product, released in 2017, scrapbooked the footage into a moving film that captures the spirit of the classic song.

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