On the cover of the album, which was recorded in Memphis, Prine is sitting on a bale of hay, looking like anything but a Chicago guy. “I thought they coulda had me on a bus or something,” he said. “I had never sat on a bale of hay in my life.” The photographer assured him he was shooting a close-up and using the hay only as “an interesting pattern to put behind my face.” In the end, Prine cottoned to the image. “Maybe he saw the hick inside me trying to get out.”
Produced by Arif Mardin, John Prine certainly was marked by the rural inflections and sensibility passed down by his parents. Would the songs — emotional knife-twisters such as “Hello In There” and larkish lifestyle commentaries such as “Spanish Pipedream”, in which a topless dancer offers “level-headed” advice to “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper/Go to the country, build you a home” — have caused such a stir if they weren’t coming from a kid of 24 who didn’t have any right to be passing on such wisdom?
“Hey, I just figured I knew about what I was writing about, but that doesn’t make me smart,” said Prine. “To be able to have those insights about people, that doesn’t mean you have any answers. All you’re able to do is give the police a good description of the guy who robbed the place. You might even tell a few courts about them, but that doesn’t mean you can tell them where he lives or why he did it.
“In certain ways, I only wrote those songs because I was as innocent as I was about the world. But I could see these things going on and they stuck with me evidently, or I couldn’t have written them down and they couldn’t have touched nerves the way they did.
“But, I don’t know, it was only after that that I was shown the world. All of a sudden, I was able to travel all over and meet all different people. After all these years of doing that, I wasn’t so sure that I didn’t like the world that I started out with better than the one I saw after years and years.”
Prine was perfectly happy working with Mardin, who also produced Diamonds In The Rough and Sweet Revenge, his second and third albums. “Truly, I think he was a genius as a producer,” Prine says. “He had never heard of a steel guitar before he worked with me. And the day we brought Leo LeBlanc in the studio, Arif sat there for a good two hours, just asking Leo to play standards and stuff, and he couldn’t get over how it reminded him of string arrangements. I thought we were rolling along fine.”
But for his fourth album, 1975′s Common Sense, Prine picked as his producer Steve Cropper, famed Stax and Booker T & the MGs guitarist, “out of the air, thinking you were supposed to try different things with different producers. I didn’t know there’d been all this bad blood between him and Atlantic, so Atlantic took it as a slap in the face.”
Recorded in Memphis and Los Angeles, Common Sense made no secret of its commercial designs. It had a big sound, Memphis horns, and backup vocals by an L.A. posse of Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. But for its professional polish, it was a rebellious effort in signaling Prine’s desire to go off in a different direction.
As you might gather from his description of the album’s title cut in his notes to Rhino’s Prine anthology, Great Days, he wasn’t in the brightest of spirits: “It’s a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical and indifferent, like all us native Americans.” The obscure bent of tunes such as “Saddle In The Rain”, in which he “dreamed they locked God up/Down in my basement/And he waited there for me/To have this accident/So he could drink my wine/And eat me like a sacrament,” didn’t help sell the album. After Common Sense tanked at the box office, it made sense for Prine to move on.
“In the short time I was there, Atlantic really changed from what it was when I was a record buyer,” Prine laments. “That’s who I thought I was signing with when Wexler signed me. Jerry retired about three years after I was there, and then they signed Led Zeppelin, and then they signed the Stones, and Ahmet [Ertegun, the label's founder] just started traveling the world, and between Zeppelin and the Stones, that was it.
“Jerry had an idea of why he was signing me, and why he started a Nashville label. There was something stirring with this kind of music and he wanted to pursue it. With Jerry gone, I went to Ahmet and asked him if he had any ideas of about what he’d like me to do after four records. I said I don’t feel like anyone knows or cares what I’m doing here; they just kept giving me money to make records. I just felt lost.”
Feeling constricted as a songwriter, he made a conscious decision to go beyond the story-songs that were his bread and butter. “I thought if every time I do an album, I come up with twelve new characters, sooner or later I’ll have like an entire city, you know, of people,” he said with a laugh. “They came so easy for me, they were gonna get trite. So I tried to write anything but, just to stretch out.”
With his marriage headed for an end — his wife reportedly wasn’t happy about her life as a musician’s better half — he headed to Nashville. Newly signed to Asylum, he hooked up with Cowboy Jack Clement, the famed producer, studio founder and label head. Once a cog in the Sun Records machine, Clement spent the summer of ’77 producing Prine and working on his own first album. He completed that debut, All I Want To Do In Life (which didn’t yield a sequel until last year’s Guess Things Happen That Way), but the songs he recorded with Prine remained unfinished. “We had some great music, and we had some great tapes,” Prine said. “But we didn’t have a record.”