Few pop artists are as thoroughly well-liked as Prine is — not only by his fans, many of whom, after he and Bunetta started Oh Boy as a mail-order business, sent in money for albums Prine hadn’t even started; not only by fellow artists, who, in addition to covering his songs, appearing on his albums and citing him in interviews, have put his name into more than a dozen of their own tunes (including the moody Minnesota trio Low’s “John Prine”); not only by poet laureate Ted Kooser, who preambled his recent onstage interview with Prine at the Library of Congress by comparing him to short story master Raymond Carver for making “monuments” of ordinary lives; but also, just possibly, by the large gallery of characters in his compositions.
I’m referring to Donald and Lydia and Iron Ore Betty, to Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard and Linda who went to Mars, to Forbidden Jimmy, who “got a mighty sore tooth from biting too many dimes in a telephone booth,” to Dear Abby, who showed up in a novelty tune named after her — one that inspired a fan to actually write to her pretending to be the guy in the song whose stomach made noises whenever he kissed. Sabu is in there, too, and so is Jesus. To their eternal gratitude, Prine has never abandoned them, stretching his concerts to two and a half hours so he can play the old songs along with the new.
Prine seems always to have made people happy. “I was such a good kid, childless couples used to borrow me,” he said, recalling his formative years in Maywood, an economically mixed western suburb of Chicago. “They’d loan me out for a night. You could just sit me somewhere and I’d be there an hour later when you came back. Though I ended up having a little brother, I was supposed to have been the baby. I had two older brothers and I could do no wrong whatsoever. Everybody picked me up when they came in the door and swang me around. It was a really great childhood.”
His father, a tool and die man and union head who left Kentucky to get away from the coal mines, had a big collection of country 78s and “loved to go to honky-tonks and play the jukebox. He’d take us with him to hillbilly bars, set me up, order an orange pop for me, go play the jukebox and give me money for the pinball machine.” Prine’s maternal grandfather played guitar with Merle Travis. Young John took a liking to Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and moved on to other country and bluegrass and honky-tonk stylists from there.
Taking a page, and informal lessons, from his older brother Dave, a fiddler who was featured on his early albums, he hung around the Old Town School of Folk Music. He began learning to play songs at 14, when “I was trying to impress a girl.” One of them was “Twist And Shout”. The other was one of his own songs, which he remembers as “a Hank Williams throwaway.” He found it easier to play his own stuff than learn somebody else’s. Two other originals from that early period, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan”, ended up on his second album, Diamonds In The Rough.
He lost interest in music for a while. But having been pressed into playing tunes for his mates in the Army — drafted out of high school at 17, he was stationed in Germany at the height of Vietnam — he began making up songs to amuse himself during his rounds as a mail carrier, a job he held for six years in Maywood.
No one knew about his commitment to songwriting — not his wife, Ann Carol, whom he’d married in 1966, not his brothers, not his parents. His announced his talents in 1969 at a club near the Old Town called the Fifth Peg, having scored a job auditioning with three originals: “Sam Stone”, about a war veteran’s drug troubles; “Hello In There”, a tearful ballad about neglected old people; and “Paradise,” which depicted the ravaging of his father’s hometown in Kentucky by strip miners. “I wrote it to show I could write stuff my father knew about,” he said.
Movie critic Roger Ebert, who also did some music writing back then, was among the first to call attention to Prine after catching him in October 1970. Legend (with help from Prine) has rewritten the details a bit: Ebert didn’t walk out on a movie to get some popcorn and overhear people talking about this guy from Maywood singing and so headed over to the Fifth Peg. He had heard about Prine — and, he conjectured recently, probably had seen him — before. And the headline over Ebert’s column in the Sun-Times wasn’t the Variety-worthy “Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,” but rather the awkward “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.”
“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” wrote Ebert. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
In the summer of 1971, Prine won over Kristofferson, who was riding high as one of the new leaders of the new country, after Goodman talked him into seeing Prine’s act at the Earl of Old Town. Goodman was opening for Kristofferson at the Quiet Knight, where he played one of Prine’s songs. By the time Kristofferson and Goodman made it to the Earl — along with the unlikely third wheel of Paul Anka, who was singing Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” as part of his nightclub act at the Empire Room — everyone had gone, chairs were on tables, and Prine was asleep in a booth. Or, as Prine recalls, under it.
Kristofferson asked Prine to sing, and heard seven songs. He then asked him to sing them all again and add some others. “If he was nervous, it didn’t show,” Kristofferson said recently via e mail. “His performance was as natural as breathing. And his songs simply blew us away.”
The songs carried Prine to New York, where Kristofferson got him and Goodman (who was about to release his first album on Buddha) onto his gig at the Bitter End. Prine played the late set, for the door. Legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who had helped launch the careers of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, heard Prine and signed him. Later that year, Atlantic released Prine’s self-titled debut, with liner notes by Kristofferson and a thank you to Anka (who attempted to become Prine’s manager). The new “next Dylan” was born.