Straight from the streets of Maywood he came, a mailman with a chain of masterpieces. It’s Chicago, 1970, and word starts circulating around this close-knit folk music scene that there’s a new guy who must be heard to be believed. A songwriter who seems to have emerged fully formed with a voice like Hank Williams and songs that resound like some miracle collaboration between Woody Guthrie and Hemingway. His name’s Prine.
And almost as soon as the denizens of the Windy City learned of him, the secret was out, and John Prine belonged to the world.
He was then, and remains today, a genuine songwriter’s songwriter—in that he’s written the kind of songs other songwriters aspire daily to write. Evidence of which is the vast array of covers of his songs by his peers, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, Willie Nelson, and so many others. Even Bob Dylan, since the first night Kristofferson brought Prine and Steve Goodman into their Greenwich Village fold, has been awed. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” said Dylan. “Beautiful songs… I remember when Kris first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone,’ the soldier junkie daddy, and ‘Donald and Lydia,’ where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.” Kristofferson, despite fostering Prine’s genius into the world, admitted to being intimidated by him. “He’s so good,” Kris said. “We’re gonna have to break his fingers.”
We spoke to him on a bright Tennessee morning, his voice a low, raspy whisper since his recent bout with cancer and subsequent throat surgery. But his stories were punctuated with frequent laughter—laughter at himself, and at the sad folly of a world he’s written about so well for decades. Though talking wasn’t as easy as it once was, he enjoyed rummaging through the rooms of his own memory.
Do you remember where the idea for “Hello in There” came from?
I remember that I tied it, somehow, to the first time I heard John Lennon sing “Across the Universe.” I played that song over and over again. It sounded, to me, like somebody talking to a hollow log or a lead pipe—with that echo. I was thinking of reaching somebody, communicating with somebody, like “hello… hello in there…” When I was writing the song, I thought that these people have entire lives in there. They’re not writers, but they all have stories to tell. Some are very, very down deeper than others. See, you gotta dig, you know?
I didn’t know what the song was going be about, actually, when I came up with “Hello in There.” I was a big fan of Bob Dylan early on and his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I modeled “Donald and Lydia” after that song, as far as telling a story and having the chorus be the moral to the story.
I had learned “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” It had about nine chords to it. I thought I should write a song with every chord in it I know—that’s “Hello in There.” I’m still surprised to this day that the chords came out that well and sound as pretty as they do.
It’s surprising to hear the Lennon and Dylan influence, as their songs were quite abstract, while your songs tell clear stories with precise imagery and language.
It’s what I was good at, but I thought it was a fault at first. I soon found out the reason that was on my mind is because that’s what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear what was in somebody’s purse, what paintings were hanging on the wall. I wanted to know whether it was a cheap refrigerator.
Do you remember how “Angel from Montgomery” was born?
My friend Eddie Holstein wanted to co-write a song, and I said, “What do you want to write about?” And he said, “I really like that song you wrote about old people. Let’s write another song about old people.”
I said, [laughs] “I can’t, Eddie. I said everything I wanted to in ‘Hello in There.’ I thought for awhile and said, “How ‘bout a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is?” Eddie goes, “Nawww.”
But the idea stuck and I went home and started “Angel from Montgomery” with the words, “I am an old woman named after my mother.” I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over dishwater with soap in her hands. I just kept that image in mind and I just let it pour out of that character’s heart.
If you come up with a strong enough character, you let the character write the song. You just dictate from then on. I almost go into a trance. Once I’ve got a sketch in mind of who the person was, then I let them speak for themselves. Rather than me saying, “Hey, so here’s a middle-aged woman. She feels she’s much older.” It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
Years later, I got asked how I could get away with writing a woman’s song first-person. And that never occurred to me, because I considered myself a writer. And writers are any gender you want. You write from the character and how can you go wrong?
It’s so powerful how you paint the scene with pictures and let the listener feel it for themselves.
I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks. Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you just draw the foundation. I still tend to believe that’s the way to tackle it today.
Do you generally have a very specific idea in mind before you start writing a song?
Yes. Because, otherwise, I don’t see any reason in sitting down [laughs] to do it. A lot of times, I’ll have the song written [in my head], and I only write it down so I don’t forget it. I could write behind a steel mill. But it’s easier to get behind a guitar.
You said that sometimes it feels like a trance. Is it easy for you to get to that place where songs start coming?
No. It’s very elusive. You gotta learn patience. I know that I’m basically a very lazy person. As much as I enjoy writing, I would rather do anything in the world but sit down and write. But once I get into it, I’m into it. I mean, if you said, “Let’s go get a hot dog first,” I would always go for the hot dog. I know that about myself. So I have to balance out my patience waiting for the right thing to come along with my laziness, knowing I’m trying to avoid working.
Some of the songs come so fully, it’s like they are pre-packaged. There have been a couple that came in the middle of the night. And I thought, jeez, I’ll never forget that. And went back to sleep, and it was gone. You’ll hear something years later that another songwriter that you respect writes, and you go, jeez, I think that was the remnants of that song that got sent to me.
Can you recall how you wrote “Sam Stone”?
Well, I had just gotten out of the service myself. I always thought one of the great mistakes they made in the service is if they spent half the time that they do getting you ready, and the intensity that they put you through in basic training for combat, if they spent half that time bringing you down and teaching you how to be a civilian, it would make a big difference. I would liken it to a person who has done prison time. They all speak of how difficult it is to be back on the street, and how difficult it is be to accept freedom once you get used to living incarcerated. So, all my friends that were over there were affected, like I said. I wasn’t writing about anybody specific. I made up the character of Sam Stone, obviously, just ‘cause he rhymed with “home.”
I remember a story in the papers about some soldiers coming home from Vietnam in San Francisco. When they landed, some people at the airport were spitting on them, and saying they shouldn’t be over there killing babies and stuff. I was totally repulsed by that. I mean… to blame a soldier—maybe because I was one—I felt like they didn’t know what they were talking about. To blame the guys who are going over there because they didn’t run to Canada and say they’re not gonna fight for their country just seemed really awkward and stupid to me.
I wanted to explain through a fictional character what it might be like to come home. Not to be there, because I was never in Vietnam. I was stationed in Germany.
Songs like “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery” are such mature songs for a young songwriter to write.
I was very nervous about singing the songs in public for the first time. I thought that they would come across as too detailed, too amateurish. I hadn’t heard anybody being that detailed, and I thought there must be a reason for that. But I knew the songs were very effective to me and they reached me. I was very satisfied with the songs, but I didn’t know how they would relate to other people, because I didn’t consider myself a normal person. [Laughter]
Did audiences take to them right away?
Right away. They were very effective. The first crowd just sat there. They didn’t even applaud. They just looked at me. I thought, “Uh oh.” [Laughs] I thought, “This is pretty bad.” I started shuffling my feet and looking around. And then they started applauding and it was a really great feeling. It was like I found out, all of a sudden, that I could communicate. That I could communicate really deep feelings and emotions. And to find that out all at once was amazing. Whereas it would have been different if I would have written a novel or something and waited two years until a publisher to write me back, and said, “I think we’re gonna take a chance and publish it.” That must be a whole different feeling. But mine was immediate. It was there before other people. Nobody knew me from Adam.
It’s evident, knowing your work, that you can write about anything in songs, using content nobody else ever has.
Yeah. I knew if I could get away with “Sam Stone,” about the veteran coming home, and a chorus like “there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” even as powerful as it turned out to be, that I could write anything. But when I wrote it, it was very odd. When I’d sing that chorus, I’d be nervous and by the second time around, there’d be dead silence. And I just figured, yeah, you can write about anything, anything at all. As a matter of fact, the less familiar, the better.
Was there ever content or an idea for a song you couldn’t get into a song?
More often than not, I can’t jump into a song too quick because there’s always the danger of painting yourself into a corner. There are no tougher corners to get out of than the ones that you paint. You can’t change the rules if you made up the rules—especially if it’s a story song. You’d better be going somewhere. I think that’s what the listeners are always thinking that—hey, this is precious time I’m giving you, so you’d better be going somewhere. [Laughs] This joke better be funny.
Do you generally write more and then cut stuff out?
No, I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to paper. I prefer a typewriter even to a computer. I don’t like it. There’s no noise on the computer. I like a typewriter because I am such a slow typist. I edit as I am committing it to paper. I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before me and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts out. If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it. Sometimes,you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.
Do you remember the first time you met Steve Goodman?
Yeah, he walked up to me. They were already playing a tape on the radio of Steve singing “City of New Orleans.” I had him pictured in my mind as a tall, skinny banjo-playin’ guy with a little beard. [Laughs] He was actually about all of 5’1”. He’d poke you in the chest when you talked to him, like Edgar G. Robinson. On stage, he was ten-feet tall.
Would he criticize your songs?
Back in the Village in Carly Simon’s apartment, 1971, my first record wasn’t coming out for a week. Kristofferson said to Steve and me to come over, said he had a surprise for us. So we come over and we’re sitting in Carly’s place, and there’s a knock on the door and in walks Bob Dylan. At this time, Bob Dylan was not doing any shows. He had just written “George Jackson.”
So we’re passing the guitar around. Kris sings one. I sing one. Bob takes the guitar and sings that. Goodman looks at him [laughs] and says, “That’s great, Bob. It’s no ‘Masters of War,’ though.” [Much laughter].
And I sang “Far From Me,” and Dylan sang with me. He had an advance copy of my record that Jerry Wexler had sent him. And he already knew a couple of the songs, so he showed up at the Bitter End and played harmonica behind me on “Donald and Lydia” and “Far From Me.” It was like a dream.