The first song on John Prine’s latest album is a cover of “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”. The original version, a 1974 hit for George Jones & Tammy Wynette, was bursting with jokes both lyrical (corny rhymes like “We’re the old Chevro-let set,” courtesy songwriter Bobby Braddock) and musical (the classical strings that accompany the line “Our Bach and Tchaikovsky/Are Haggard and Husky”). But though it was filled with jokes, it wasn’t one: At heart, it was a serious celebration of working-class culture.
Prine’s version, sung with Iris DeMent, is just a joke. From opening with the same Euro-styled mandolin part that kicked off George & Tammy’s record to fading out the vocals in precisely the same spot, this new version virtually re-creates the original arrangement. Over that hoity-toity mandolin, DeMent sings Tammy’s opening lines exquisitely — in other words, one great female country singer replaces another. Then, right on cue and playing the Jones part, Prine enters, his craggy voice straining to hit the high notes and more speaking than singing. John Prine’s quirky croak inviting comparison to country music’s finest-ever voice? Buh-duh-bum.
The rest of Prine’s first release since successfully battling neck cancer is much better because, even when cracking jokes, he still takes the songs seriously. In Spite Of Ourselves is a solid collection of country duets, and if nothing else, it proves that Prine has great taste in old country songs (the title track is the lone original), not to mention great taste in what used to be called “girl singers.” Besides DeMent, Prine joins voices here with Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Delores Keane, Patty Loveless, and his wife, Fiona Prine. Though Prine is the album’s unifying presence, these women are the disc’s stars. Their voices are universally amazing, just plain beautiful in ways to which Prine’s voice can only aspire. But it’s in the aspiring that Prine usually makes himself an equal singing partner.
On “When Two Worlds Collide”, the collision between Yearwood’s stunning vocal instrument and Prine’s, uh, more limited one — he has all the range and technical control you’d get by fusing Ernest Tubb’s vocal cords to Tom T. Hall’s — actually makes the title metaphor come alive. “We couldn’t be close though we tried,” Prine declares, and you can hear he’s right in the harmony. Later, when Loveless joins Prine on “Back Street Affair”, their voices — one down-to-earth, one flying, each reaching for the other — symbolize two connected hearts that for now must remain apart.
The best-known versions of both these songs aren’t duets (“Back Street” is a Webb Pierce classic; both Jim Reeves and songwriter Roger Miller scored hits with “Two Worlds”). Throughout the album, the songs Prine and his partners have turned into duets tend to be most successful. This is slightly ironic; Prine was, after all, one of those post-Dylan singer-songwriters who helped entrench, however unintentionally, the silly notion that songwriters are more significant than interpreters. But it also makes sense that fashioning duets out of “It’s A Cheating Situation” with Irish singer Dolores Keane (the original Moe Bandy hit featured Janie Fricke only as a backing vocalist), or the Charlie Pride hit “We Could” with DeMent, would allow Prine to shine. By reinventing the songs as duets, Prine was able to make them more his own, more like he’d created them rather than simply interpreted them.
Coincidentally (or perhaps no coincidence at all?), the years when Prine was helping to solidify the songwriter as king were also the golden years of country duet singing. Today, country duets are so uncommon that they’re billed as extra-special “Vocal Events” on the awards shows. Back in the early ’70s, though, George & Tammy, Conway & Loretta, Porter & Dolly all had successful parallel careers as duet teams. The records they added to the C&W duet tradition — dialogues of romance and gender as powerful any in all of popular music — set a standard for emotional complexity that has rarely been met.
Maybe that’s why the duets here that were already duets don’t come off so well. When Prine and Montgomery team up for “Milwaukee Here I Come” or “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds” (both famous George Jones duets; the former with Brenda Carter, the latter with Melba herself), the effect is charming, but little else. Ditto for DeMent & Prine’s take on Melba & George’s “Let’s Invite Them Over”; mainly, these tracks make you want to pull out the originals. The lone exception is “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”. A country hit in 1970 for Hank Williams Jr. and Lois Johnson, “So Sad” is sung by Prine and Connie Smith, and as they trade lines, they cut to the song’s sense of loss with a precision at once delicate and earth-shattering.
However, the only cut that might someday deserve a spot in the pantheon of great country duets is Prine’s self-penned title track. Like George & Tammy’s original “Jet Set”, “In Spite Of Ourselves” is very funny but no mere joke. Prine gives DeMent the best rhymes and the best put-downs: Her first verse goes, “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/Caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/He drinks his beer like it was oxygen.” But when Prine merges his voice with DeMent’s at the chorus, they’re both sure of their own feelings, and both know how lucky they are. “In spite of ourselves,” they sing sweetly, “we’ll end up sitting on a rainbow.”
There’s plenty of fine stuff on Prine’s record. But it’s this opportunity to sing his own song, one both funny and serious (Prine’s a smartass sentimentalist at heart, not the other way around), that seems to finally set his singing free. From the first note you can hear the smirk in his voice, yet you also come to understand that it’s only there because he’s a little embarrassed by a heart full to bursting. For one song, Prine succeeds not in spite of his voice, but because of it.