There is a niche of American music that belongs to singer/songwriters who have the brains and grit to deliver articulate impressions of life in the USA. Their styles vary, with genre-defying musicianship and voices that are not quite country and not quite rock. On the rock end of this small spectrum lie John Mellencamp and John Hiatt, and closer to the country end we find John Prine.
Like the aforementioned Mellencamp and Hiatt, John Prine is a product of the Midwest, though his hometown of Maywood, Illinois is more suburban than Mellencamp's birthplace in Indiana. He is just one generation removed from rural Kentucky, though, which accounts for some of his homespun attitude toward music.
Prine learned to play the guitar as a teen, then did a hitch in the Army during the Vietnam years. When he got out of the Army, he started playing Chicago clubs, where he met an eventual folk icon, Steve Goodman. About the time Kris Kristofferson was making a name for himself, he heard Prine and Goodman and worked to get them recording contracts. 1971, then, saw the arrival of Prine's self-titled first album. It met with critical success, but often that does not sell albums. Tickets did sell, however, as Prine started to develop a fan base outside of Chicago.
A pair of equally unsuccessful albums followed, Diamonds in the Rough and Sweet Revenge, and were it not for the recognition he got when major artists started covering his songs, Prine might have been left in obscurity. His wit and incisive commentary, however, kept the attention of the singers who were looking for good material.
Since the true folksy approach had not sold albums, Prine chose in 1975 to have legendary guitarist and producer Steve Cropper pump up the backing tracks for his next album, Common Sense. With a primarily country feel tinged with a hint of soul, the album dismayed the purists who could not envision folk songs with a beat, but they weren't buying enough copies of his albums to keep him pure. This album, in fact, was his only album to break into the Top 100 album chart.
Using high-profile guest producers became a habit for Prine: Steve Goodman produced a more folk-oriented album, Bruised Orange, in 1978, and Pink Cadillac, Prine's 1979 album, took on a rockabilly cast, thanks to production by the even more legendary Sam Phillips and his son, Knox Phillips. Clearly, John Prine was more interested in getting his message out than in making a few insiders happy by being predictable in his recording techniques.
Prine has continued to turn out stellar albums, including the 1991 release, The Missing Years, which won him a Grammy for 'Best Contemporary Folk Album.' His connections with John Mellencamp and guitarist Larry Crane got him an acting role in the 1992 film Falling from Grace, as well as a couple of superb spots on the film soundtrack.
Given the length of his career, the variety of his material, the quality of the covers of his songs (Bonnie Raitt's stellar 'Angel from Montgomery' is a cover of a song from his debut album) and the chance that some major artist will jump on stage with him, you are guaranteed a good show if you have John Prine tickets.
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