An Interview with John Prine

Looking back, John Prine realizes he wasn’t quite prepared for what happens when a new artist releases an album that quickly becomes highly celebrated and successful. Before releasing his 1971 self-titled debut—a landmark collection packed with classic tunes—Prine earned grocery money performing weekly at a small Chicago nightclub. After its release, life was never the same. 

“I wasn’t ready at all,” said Prine, during a ninety-minute program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum celebrating his exhibition, It Took Me Years to Get These Souvenirs. “I was really knocked out that I got a record contract that early, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I was really happy in Chicago, making more money than I ever envisioned, and doing that by playing my music. I was making a living and I could sleep late. This, to me, was heaven. I didn’t owe anybody anything. If I had my druthers, I would have rather done that.”

Hosted by music journalist Peter Cooper—in the first interview held in the museum’s new 800-seat CMA Theater—Prine discussed the joys and challenges of a five-decade career as one of America’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters. Dressed stylishly in a dark suit, and pushing through a hoarseness worsened by Nashville’s infamous spring allergies, Prine proved as witty, humane, and self-effacing as he does in song.

 “You cannot write generous, empathetic songs about the human condition unless you’re a generous, perceptive, empathetic person,” Cooper said in his introduction. 

Prine has won a couple of Grammys—“and deserves a couple dozen more,” Cooper said—and has contributed popular songs to the repertoires of Bonnie Raitt, George Strait, Don Williams, Tammy Wynette, and others. But those statistics don’t accurately acknowledge the fervent fan base Prine has built over the years. “The power of Prine goes far beyond charts,” Cooper explained. 

Prine grew up in Maywood, Illinois, but he got a feel for country life through regular visits to the small town of Paradise, Kentucky, in Muhlenberg County, where his mother and father were raised. “To me, it looked like a Walt Disney picture,” he said, explaining that the town had a small main street with two general stores. “It was all magic to me.”

The town later disappeared when the Green River was dammed to allow boats to reach the mines owned by the Peabody Coal Company—the subject Prine addresses in his song “Paradise.”

His father’s love of country music also influenced him. William Prine would gather his family around the record player or put an old Zenith radio in the window facing south, hoping to improve reception so everyone could listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Prine became a lifetime fan of such artists as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams because of the exposure to them he gained through his father.

Prine started writing songs, he said, when he realized he didn’t measure up to his favorite performers when he sang their hits. “I found out it was easier for me if I made up my own words,” he said with a laugh. “Then I found out that I could impress girls when I made up the words. That’s all it took.”

Taking some questions through the museum’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, Cooper asked Prine if he remembered writing his first song. At age fourteen, he wrote two, “Sour Grapes” and “Frying Pan.” The former had a minor chord in it, he said, making it a folk song. The latter was a country song because it was about a neglected wife who left her husband by placing a goodbye note inside the frying pan on the stove. “She knew, when he got home, it would be the first place he was going to look,” he said. 

Prine also learned to play guitar at age fourteen. His older brother, David, had played the ukulele and guitar and was moving on to the fiddle—which benefited John. “He needed a rhythm player to keep time as he was teaching himself fiddle,” John said. “Once I learned three chords and some Carter Family songs, I was flying. I could write any old song I wanted to.” 

A job delivering mail for the U.S. Post Office gave Prine time to hone his craft. “Once you know you’re on the right street, there really wasn’t that much to the job,” Prine joked. “I used to compare it to being in a library for eight hours with no books. There wasn’t much to do but use your imagination.”

While furthering his guitar skills by taking classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, John would join other students and teachers after class at the Fifth Peg, a small live music club that featured amateur performers. 

“One night, after enough beers, I figured I could be an amateur too,” Prine said. He performed “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” and “Paradise”—all of which would become standards of his repertoire. “I got a job there from those three songs.”

His first night, only six people were there, but the audience grew exponentially each week. “Word of mouth was getting around,” Prine said. One night, renowned Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert walked out of a bad movie and stopped in for a beer. That week he wrote glowingly about Prine in the Chicago Sun-Times

“I was just laying my view of the world on the line, not knowing if people would laugh at it,” Prine said. “I was a pretty quiet kid and kept my thoughts to myself, mostly. That’s what I was putting in my songs—my view and the way things look to me. The subjects were vehicles for my feelings.”

Cooper noted that Prine’s exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum featured his manuscript for the song “Angel from Montgomery,” another classic from Prine’s first album that has been covered by Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and many others. People often have asked Prine why he opened the song with the line, “I am an old woman.” He likes to write from the point of view of characters other than himself, he said. Male fiction writers create female characters, and Prine thought songwriters should have the same freedom. “There’s no gender when it comes to being a writer,” he said.  

Prine’s next boost came when Chicago songwriting buddy Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson to hear Prine perform. “The club had closed, but the door was open,” Prine said. “The chairs were turned up on the tables, and I was waiting around to get paid.”

When Kristofferson and his entourage arrived, Prine pulled his guitar out of the case. Asked what was going through his head, Prine replied, “Beer,” eliciting a swell of laughter. Then he said, “I saw it as a great opportunity.”

Less than six months later, Kristofferson invited Prine and Goodman to perform with him in New York. “The next day, I signed a record contract,” Prine said. “It was just that quick.” He paused, waiting for the applause to end, and added, “Things have been crazy ever since.”

During the museum program Prine occasionally strapped on his guitar, performing “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” and “Paradise” and giving the audience a chance to hear a song he had discussed.  

Asked if releasing so many classics at the onset of his career created a challenge to write equally good songs from then on, Prine responded that there was a time when he felt his newer tunes had to compete with his best-loved ones. “Now I just feel glad that those songs are still as fresh as they are,” he said. “The guy who wrote those songs is back in Illinois somewhere. Once you get whacked with being a recording artist, you can never return to being the person you were before.”

Prine made many friends at Atlantic Records and in the record industry; he appreciated that their jobs weren’t only focused on artists who sold millions of albums, he said. They worked hard to expose listeners to music they thought was worthy of attention, coming up with promotional ideas they thought would help Prine reach a larger audience. 

“It was their frustration that I got kind of tired of,” he said. “By the time we started Oh Boy Records, I’d been a recording artist for twenty-five years. I had been with two record labels, good ones. We had gotten another offer, a really good one. But I didn’t want to sign with another record label. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

In starting Oh Boy, Prine focused on his core audience and the people who came to his shows. His fans proved so supportive that they sent in checks, unsolicited, for an album Prine hadn’t yet recorded. “By the time we went into the studio, the record was paid for,” he said. 

At age sixty-seven, and after undergoing his second cancer surgery recently, Prine still performs regularly. “It gets harder to travel and live in hotels,” he said. “But once you get out there, and the spotlight comes on, and you start dancing around, it feels like the first time that spotlight ever hit me in that little folk club.”

- Michael McCall