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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2005/07/07
by Mike Gruenberg

John Prine

My first column appeared on jambands five years ago in July of 2000. Throughout these many years, my goal for the readers of this column has always been to inform, entertain and bring to light performers whose music was worth knowing about even if those musicians lacked a degree of notoriety among the broad spectrum of the music buying public. In deciding to write about John Prine this month, I found a subject in him whose musical abilities are second to none although he has not had a Top 10 hit record. John Prine, has evolved from his early beginnings as an acoustic performer which turned into a folk rock act and then went to country and then to just plain rock and has continued to survive whatever genre he chooses. He has been making records since the early 70’s and today he continues to produce records on his own label. And after all these years, he is enjoying a renaissance with his latest album, Fair & Square on his Oh Boy label. For me, John was a perfect person to write about for my five-year anniversary column. He exemplifies the musical spirit of an artist making music because he simply likes to do it. Most of all, he’s a storyteller and I’ve always been fascinated by guys who can tell a story through a song. The difference between John and other musical storytellers is that most of his stories contain a fair bit of cynicism mixed in with a strong measure of sarcasm topped off with a shot of reality. "Fair & Square" is a typical Prine offering with political and social views that are always in attendance on all his records. But before I talk about his recent album, a brief history of Prine is in order.
As a young man, John played the coffee house circuit in Chicago. His first album was recorded in Memphis in the early 70’s. Among his most notable songs in the first album were "Sam Stone", "Six O’clock News" and "Hello in There." The album was produced by Arif Mardin and had all the makings of a highly successful record. Prine’s music spoke about the hardships of working class people. He spoke about the treatment of Vietnam vets when it was a topic predominantly ignored by America. He spoke about old people and their hard times. Perhaps this first album was too controversial or perhaps the timing of its release was wrong or perhaps the record company did not promote it enough. The bottom line was that it was not a big seller even with a major label, veteran producer and meaty subjects sung by a handsome young man with a southern drawl by way of Chicago.
In 1972, Mardin produced John’s second album, Diamond In The Rough with much the same commercial lack of success as the first offering. In 1973, Mardin produced John’s third album, Sweet Revenge. On the cover of that album, John is sprawled out on the front seat of a convertible in a less than sober state. At the time, it was believed that this was his way of saying that I’m making my music so even if you don’t buy the album, I’ll continue on my own terms This album also had moderate sales success.
Although a majority of the record buying public had not discovered John, many musicians found his music appealing and they began to record his songs for their albums and to this day, he enjoys knowing that a wide variety of musical legends have sung his songs.

In 1975, Steve Cropper, of Stax Records fame, produced the Common Sense album for John that sold even less that his previous records. In this offering, he went to a more hard rock feel that offended his folk audience while at the same did not appeal to the buyers of hard rock.
In 1978, Prine released Bruised Orange which was produced by his Chicago colleague and good friend the late Steve Goodman. The reunion with Goodman also reunited John with his acoustic roots thus abandoning the vocal format of the previous record. A series of albums followed including a rockabilly offering produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Neither the Goodman nor the Phillips produced albums were big sellers.
By 1983, John had enough of the big record labels and formed Oh Boy Records and took control of his career. He certainly did not sell any more albums on Oh Boy than he previously did, but he did experience the success and recognition that had eluded him in the past. He was awarded a Grammy for The Missing Years which was an album produced by Howie Epstein from the Tom Petty band.
So here we are, 22 years after the formation of Oh Boy Records and John has released an incredible album called Fair & Square. It’s one of those albums that make you glad you have ears and can listen. It’s one of those albums where you hear a song and say to yourself that this is your favorite cut on the record and then you hear the next song and it becomes your new favorite. For me, that process repeated itself throughout until I got to "Safety Joe" the 14th song on the album and I had to listen to all the songs again to once again formulate my standards for picking a hit record.
For me, Fair & Square made me think, made me laugh, allowed me to hum along and even unashamedly applaud. Most of all, it made me smile. I cannot think of a better album to play in your car rolling down the highway. In this album, John is faithful to his storytelling acoustic roots. Politics, love and taking chances are covered here. There is even a song that pays homage to a woman he loves called "She Is My Everything."

She is my everything
From her suntanned shoulders
Down to the freckles
On her wedding ring
Here feet are so warm
They could melt the snow
In the early Spring
She is my everything
She goes everywhere from Copenhagen
To making eggs and bacon down in Jackson Square
I’d like to drive a Cadillac
The color of her long black hair
She goes everywhere
Another point about Fair & Square has to be the musicianship of the band that John has assembled. He has Paul Griffin on drums, Dave Jacques on bass Phil Parlapiano on keyboards and Jason Wilbur on lead electric guitar. In addition to the band, John Douglas makes a guest appearance along with Alison Krauss and Mindy Smith. All contribute to a truly unique album.
It’s a bit of a mystery to me why John has not enjoyed more commercial success. I therefore tried to imagine which song off Fair & Square I could predict that would be a Top 40 hit. Over and over, "Glory of True Love" was my first choice. But then again, "Morning Train" could hit high on the charts. On the other hand, "Clay Pigeons" should be played on radio stations across the country. And of course, "She Is My Everything" may be the best of the group. Hard to make a choice since they are all unique and memorable.
Five years have come and gone and I cannot think of a better subject than John Prine to write about on this date. John has showed incredible stamina, wisdom and wit to last this long in a business that eats its young. The success he has earned in recent years is a testament to his strong will and abundant talent. According to the John Prine site, Fair & Square is getting an enormous amount of airplay. Perhaps, this will be the breakthrough album that gives him the Top 10 hit he so richly deserves and make him an overnight sensation. If not, who cares as long as he keeps producing albums like Fair & Square. We can all be assured that no matter what, John will continue to make the music he wants to make.

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