Encouraged by the holiday single’s small but successful run, he followed it in 1984 with the full-length Aimless Love, which included “The Oldest Baby In The World” and “People Puttin’ People Down”, and then 1986′s bluegrass-oriented German Afternoons, Clement’s favorite Prine album, which included “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” and “I Just Want To Dance With You”.
As Oh Boy grew, its mail-order sales increasingly gave way to store sales. Prine and Bunetta had on their hands a trailblazer for the artist-run indie labels. But amidst Oh Boy’s strong start — Prine scored his first Grammy nomination for German Afternoons and his second for the 1988 release John Prine Live — he was going through another divorce and was again entertaining thoughts of quitting the business.
He had a chance to do so when Sony made an offer to acquire Oh Boy. “I turned it down because I didn’t want to go mess with all that stuff,” he says. “I didn’t want to be around it. Still today, if I gotta go visit somebody or take a meeting in a building that houses a major label…that feeling just crawls all over me.”
Playing an inspired game of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” in terms of going after pop’s brass ring, he got a Heartbreaker, bassist Howie Epstein, to produce his next album, 1991′s The Missing Years. An all-star affair with a crisp state-of-the-art sound, it featured most of the Heartbreakers, with leader Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Everly on background vocals.
How do you spell sweet revenge? The Missing Years sold nearly a quarter of a million copies — five times Prine’s previous best efforts — and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. How could it not, with rhyming phrases like “Exactly-odo” and “Quasimodo” (on “The Sins Of Memphisto”) and pearls of plainspoken philosophy like “I tell you funny stories/Why can’t you treat me nice” (on “Great Rain”)?
The ascension of John Prine continued. Having co-written one of the tunes on The Missing Years with John Mellencamp, he took a small role in Mellencamp’s 1992 film Falling From Grace. (A few years later, he was Billy Bob Thornton’s “Zen hillbilly” brother in Thornton’s unreleasable Daddy And Them.) Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, an underrated Epstein production even if it did draw another Grammy nomination, came out in 1995, delivering “Lake Marie” and the always applicable “Quit Hollerin’ At Me”.
Prine’s success has translated into success for others. As talent scout at Oh Boy — the guy who listens to the tapes and CDs that get sent in, mainly while he’s on tour driving a rental car — he has signed the sharp-witted Todd Snider (following Snider’s mid-’90s major-label stint) and the odd-witted Dan Reeder (an American living in Germany who paints doors for a living).
Life is good for Prine, and one can assume it will get only better with the release of Fair & Square. There is, however, a small matter of politics intruding upon his contentment. More than three decades after needling the Reader’s Digest crowd with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, he is drawing negative feedback for Bush-bashing lyrics on the new album’s fifth track, “Some Humans Ain’t Human”.
The song begins as a general indictment of “jealousy and stupidity” and abruptly shifts into higher critical gear. “Have you ever noticed/When you’re feeling good,” Prine says, speaking the words, “There’s always a pigeon/That’ll come shit on your hood/Or you’re feeling your freedom/And the world’s off your back/Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq.” The gutsy payoff: “Some humans ain’t human/Some people ain’t kind/They lie through their teeth/With their head up their behind.”
“I’ve been performing the song since the day I wrote it,” Prine says. “I wrote it in Ireland last August. Two days after that, I came back to the U.S. and started to perform it, in Washington, D.C. I’ve been getting mail and comments from people after the shows, really strange stuff.
“When you get letters that say I’ve been listening to your music for 35 years and that song would offend them, I wonder what they thought I was singing about in my other songs. If nothing else, I’m glad I wrote it because it seems the way the climate is, if you’re not saying anything, you’re showing support for the administration.
“It’s a more blatant comment than I ordinarily would make,” he continues. “But I was really mad at the Bush administration. I was trying to write something lighter, but they made me lose my sense of humor. Sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade.”
Back in those flaky 1970s, commenting on Prine’s efforts as a “protest singer,” the Chicago Today newspaper waxed approvingly over his “bizarre occupation in this time of no commitment from pop musicians.” Prine isn’t alone in the new century in rallying people to the cause. But in ways both goofy and sober, he’s at the head of the class in showing us how it’s done.
ND contributing editor Lloyd Sachs is a pop and jazz writer based in Chicago, where he is a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times.