Ranking the 5 Best Songs on John Prine’s Stellar Self-Titled Debut Album

You can partly explain the abundance of riches on John Prine‘s 1971 self-titled debut album by noting Prine had been honing those words and melodies for years before he ever had the chance to perform and record them. After all, it took some time and some fortune before Prine made the leap from mailman to singer/songwriter.

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Then again, you could give other performers 100 years to try and perfect an album’s worth of work, and they’d likely never match what’s found on John Prine. Here are our choices for the five best songs from the album.

5. “Far from Me”

This ballad toys with country weeper territory, although the lyrics are far less formulaic than your typical Nashville fare. It’s also one of the few songs on this album that still feels somewhat undiscovered by casual fans. You can almost hear it like a little three-act play, as the narrator picks up his waitress girlfriend at the end of her shift. The relationship is dying, but they’re going through the motions anyway, and that’s somehow more heartbreaking than if they were in a screaming match. Broken bottles, broken promises, and broken hearts all can be found in this sorrowful wonder of a song.

4. “Paradise”

It’s stunning how Prine came out of the gate so fully formed, and how his writing was devoid of the artifice that tripped up other newbie writers. Considering the story of “Paradise” is one that directly affected his family, he easily could have gone overboard with histrionics and editorializing. Instead, he managed to draw out the most emotion by simply telling the story as succinctly as possible. It’s what he chooses to include that makes the difference: His boyhood memories of good times, the coal company’s rationalizations, and his father’s sad admission that their idyllic past cannot be recovered.

3. “Hello in There”

You can make the case the top three songs on this list all feature Prine doing something that few (if any) songwriters did at the time. In the case of “Hello in There,” he decided to write about the inner lives of the elderly, who were rarely ever mentioned in pop/rock songs. (And if they were, it was often in cloying, cliched fashion). Again, it’s a case of Prine simply telling the stories of these people as he sees them, without embellishment, realizing that life packs its own emotional punch if you just know where to look for it.

2. “Angel from Montgomery”

I am an old woman, Prine barks at the beginning of the song with that gravelly, serrated voice. Maybe the first time you hear it, that might be a little disorienting. But you quickly lose that feeling as you get lost in this woman’s story. On the surface, hers is what might be deemed a benign life, since she has a home and a husband. But her dreams and desires, which are their own form of human sustenance, are being squelched by her mundane routine. The chorus is one of Prine’s saddest, in that we know that her requests for one thing that I can hold on to will fall unheard.

1. “Sam Stone”

There was no shortage of antiwar songs before Prine arrived, but there was certainly a dearth of songs about what a soldier’s return home is like. Prine opened up that idea, but nobody has ever quite topped “Sam Stone” is this little subgenre he created. Others have covered this song and done well by playing up the drama. But there’s something to be said for Prine’s underplaying, as it forces us to look at this character without anything to pretty up his tale. The singer/songwriter genre is so much greater for having this album, and songs like this within it, as standards for others to try and meet.

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Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame

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