In his last in-depth interview, the legendary singer-songwriter, who died on April 7, guided MOJO’s Bob Mehr through his colourful career.
THIS PAST WINTER, MOJO’s Bob Mehr visited John Prine in Nashville to conduct a thorough interview with the great singer-songwriter about his entire career. It encompassed Prine’s transformation from singing mailman to Dylan-endorsed poet of the people, and much, much more.
The interview, full of his trademark wit and wisdom, was likely his last: John Prine died on April 7, 2020. We’re proud to run it in full, here.
JOHN PRINE IS DEEP in thought, discussing the craft of songwriting, when suddenly his gaze is diverted to the big bay windows of his dining room. His eyes suddenly widen with excitement.
“It’s starting to snow,” he says, his voice rising. “Hey Fi! It’s snowing!”
It’s the start of the holiday season, and Prine is holding court in his Georgian-style manor in this quiet south Nashville neighbourhood. The singer and his manager wife Fiona moved here a couple years ago, in part because their old house had become a stop on a country music celebrity bus tour. “You’d be carrying out your garbage and there’s people taking pictures with flash bulbs,” chuckles Prine. “Very glamorous.”
In a black sweater and slacks, with prodigious cheeks and twinkling eyes, Prine cuts a genial figure. He talks with his head cocked slightly to one side, the result of a neck cancer and surgery that threatened his voice and career two decades ago (he’s since survived a second bout of lung cancer). Sipping from a glass of iced tea, he ponders plans to stock the vintage Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner with a selection of Christmas 78s. “I gotta get it fixed first though,” he notes. “Last time I tried to use it, Elvis Costello was over for dinner, him and Joe Henry, and I tried to play them some Bing Crosby songs and the thing started pouring out smoke.”
In a previous life as a US army mechanic, the Illinois-born, Kentucky-rooted Prine might have took a shot at repairing it himself. As it is, songwriting proved a more persuasive calling than the military, or the mail route he famously trudged for many years. Discovered and championed by Kris Kristofferson while playing the folk clubs of Chicago, and then signed to Atlantic Records, Prine launched his recording career in 1971 with John Prine: a collection of singular story songs that his longtime admirer Bob Dylan once hailed as “pure Proustian existentialism… Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree.”
Prine’s most recent album, 2018’s Grammy-nominated The Tree of Forgiveness, testifies to enduring skills, although he admits “I write mostly out of fear now. I have to have a deadline.” More surprising, perhaps, is the growth of his audience, including a crop of acclaimed young artists – starring Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves – plus continuing support from the old guard, including Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant who, it turns out, Prine’s wife has just run into shopping in nearby Green Hills.
“Robert’s a fan of mine,” says Prine. “So is Roger Waters. A lot of the big English rocker guys from the ‘70s like me. I don’t know why they weren’t fans in the ‘70s. But I’m glad everyone’s come around.”
What was your earliest exposure to music?
Me and my brothers were all born and raised in the Chicago area, but my parents were both from Western Kentucky. So there was country music playing in our house all the time: Roy Acuff, Hank Williams. Every night my dad would have the radio tuned to the local country station, or sometimes he could pick up WSM down in Nashville on weekends. He didn’t play music. He couldn’t sing either, but that didn’t stop him. (laughs) When he’d had a couple too many he’d stand on a chair or a table and sing The Wabash Cannonball.
Was there a sense that you were Southerners in exile?
Oh yeah. My dad had come up north for work, but he was deeply connected to Kentucky. I remember in second or third grade we were supposed to go home and ask our parents where we were from, what our heritage was. The kind of thing where kids in class would stand up and say they were Irish-German or Scandinavian or whatever. My dad, after he had a couple beers, said, “Remember, son: you’re pure Kentuckian, the last of a dyin’ breed.”
I gather you weren’t much of a student.
I was lucky just to finish high school. I promised my dad I would graduate and it took me five years to get out. I just didn’t hear what they were saying, y’know? I was a daydreamer. The only thing I would ace was if there was an English class or something where you didn’t have to hit a book, but just use your imagination and write. It seemed easy to me to write dialogue and situations that I thought of.
It was your older brother Dave who taught you how to play guitar?
He was caught up in the folk boom of the late-’50s and early-‘60s. He was playing guitar, banjo and decided to teach himself how to play the fiddle. And it sounded awful, I mean really bad (laughs). But he needed somebody to play rhythm behind him to keep time. That’s why he taught me, showed me G, C, and D and all day long I’d hit those chords. Then he gave me a Carter Family record and the songs seemed so good and simple, I thought, Boy, I could do that. I started writing songs to Carter Family melodies. But by the time I got done with the melody it didn’t sound like one of theirs. I was writing a lot up until I was about 16. Then I guess I got busy being a juvenile delinquent. I can’t remember having any serious ideas of becoming a songwriter then. I thought it was so far away that it was not anything you should even dream about.
You ended up becoming a mailman instead.
Yeah, I did that for six years, before I got drafted in the army and then again after I got out. The pay was good, but the work was awful, between the elements and the dogs chasing you. Plus, I was the low man on the totem pole so they gave me the worst mail route – it had over 500 houses on it, all with steps. I eventually whittled it down to 450 – it took me four years to do that.
You were drafted at the height of Vietnam war, but caught a break and ended up stationed in Germany.
In boot camp, I was in in Fort Polk, Louisiana and they were training us to crawl through the swamps and kill the Vietnamese. We were all sure we were getting sent over there. Everybody got their orders and I’d say 85 percent of the guys went to Vietnam. When I got the orders for Germany, my father was really happy. Actually, so was I. That’s where I started playing and writing again. I had my mom and dad ship over my guitar and I’d play in the barracks.
You returned to the States in the midst of the whole countercultural revolution.
I got back just before Christmas of ‘67. So much had changed in that time, ‘66 and ‘67. When I went away most of my buddies that didn’t get drafted, they were greasers, with slicked back hair and leather jackets. When I came back they all had long hair and bell bottoms. I got married while I was in the army, married my high school sweetheart. So I was an old married man at 21. And my buddies were still finding themselves when all that hippie stuff hit. I was never really a hippie. I was more like a retired greaser. That’s probably why I never got into writing songs about “let’s get together” or “we can save the world.” I was more of an observer of this new world, because I was kinda removed from it.
You would write songs while working on your mail route, like Sam Stone, Hello In There and Paradise off your first album. Did you realise how good they were?
I thought there was a possibility they could be really good, or just plain awful. They were really different; they had nothing to do with regular songs. So I had mixed feelings. I was proud of them because they were mine, but I wasn’t sure they were gonna connect with other people. I do remember around that time, Bob Dylan was on the first Johnny Cash show. When I saw the two of them singing together I thought the music I was playing and writing, it’d fit right straight in between the two of ’em. I thought, that’s exactly where I want to be.
You made your first appearance on stage at an open mike night, basically on a dare, right?
It was just a little club in Chicago, not even 20 people in there when I got up. I wasn’t the type to heckle, but I’d had a few beers and wasn’t really impressed with what I was hearing and said so under my breath. And someone at the next table said, “Well if it’s so easy, why don’t you get up and do it?” So I said, “Well, maybe I will.” I got up and sang Sam Stone and the audience just sat there. They looked at me, looked at each other, looked at me again… seemed like an eternity and, finally, they started applauding. The owner of the club came up afterwards and offered me a job singing there. I couldn’t believe it. The thing I really remember was that I was more comfortable than I’d ever felt. I just felt like that’s where I belonged.
It wasn’t long before your friend and fellow Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson to see you play.
That was huge. I mean, Kris was it. He was the biggest thing to come along in the way of lyrics since Bob Dylan. There was nobody in the place when Kris got there. I sang seven songs and got off the stage. Kris brought me a beer and asked me if I would get back up there and sing those same seven songs and anything else I had. He was interested in everything I’d ever written. That was enough validation right there.
Your connection with Kristofferson led to a deal with Atlantic Records.
Paul Anka had been hanging out with Kris the night in Chicago when he came to see me. I think Paul just saw the excitement that Kris had and thought, I should get in on this. Anka wanted to manage me and Goodman so he ended up buying us plane tickets to New York. I wasn’t gonna go but Goodman talked me into it. We got to New York and picked up a copy of the Village Voice at LaGuardia [Airport] and we look at it, and Kris is playing at the Bitter End, and Carly Simon was opening. We took a cab on down there. Just as we got out Kris and his band are walking down the street – they’d been at the bar next door between shows. Kris see us and says, “I’m gonna put you guys up on stage, you’re gonna do some songs tonight.” We didn’t know it, but the second show was for record company people. They were coming to see Kris ‘cause he was the new world wonder. It was full of label people; Jerry Wexler was sitting down front. He came and talked to me after I got off stage. Asked me to show up at his office at Atlantic at 10 the next morning. I showed up and I had a record contract waiting for me. I hadn’t been in New York City 24 hours! If you’d put that in a movie people would have thought it was too corny.
Pretty early on in your career you made a connection with Bob Dylan, who’s been a vocal fan of yours.
It was before my first record came out. Me and Goodman were back in New York doing press and getting our pictures taken. Kris was in town and he said to come on over to Carly Simon’s apartment: “I got a surprise for you guys.” We’re over there about a half hour and there’s a knock at the door and it’s Bob Dylan. Nobody had really seen Bob anywhere for a while. I sang Far From Me off my first album, and when I got to the chorus Bob started singing along. The record wasn’t even out! It almost stopped me in my tracks. I found out later that Wexler had sent him an advance copy. Dylan said when he first heard my voice he thought I’d swallowed a Jew’s harp (laughs).
Early on you were considered among the “New Dylans,” and that you were some kind of protest singer.
I never thought I wrote protest songs, but a couple of them became protest songs. The one I wrote about the strip mining in Kentucky – Paradise – that was about my father’s hometown. I just wrote exactly what happened. If there had been a tornado or something that took the town, it would’ve been the same song. But the [Peabody] coal company thought it was a protest song, and in their own goofy way they made it more popular than it was. At one time they printed a pamphlet called “Facts vs. Prine” and they distributed it up there. It was crazy. They made me into a Woody Guthrie character.
With your fourth album, 1975’s Common Sense, you made more of a rock record with former Stax guitarist/producer Steve Cropper at the helm. It seemed like you were searching for a sound.
Things had happened pretty fast for me, so I was still finding my way musically. I took a full band out for the Common Sense tour, a band I wasn’t ready for. But [Cropper’s] production was such that I had to take some kind of band to perform the songs. But every gig was like torture for me. Now it’s a different thing – I’m uncomfortable without my band.
You also asked to leave Atlantic around this time and moved over to Asylum. You seemed increasingly uncomfortable with a major label existence.
My contract with Atlantic was a five-year contract for ten albums of self-written material. Every six months I was supposed to put out a record. In retrospect, the whole singer-songwriter thing was mainly a way for labels to get publishing on some really great songs. They promised all these songwriters, “Oh, you’re going to be a big recording artist.” So they’d put a couple of records out and then ignore them or they’d drop them, but they’d own the publishing forever. They still have the publishing on my first album, and it’s almost been 50 years. You’d think I could get it back by now.
In ’77, you connected with former Sun Records engineer and maverick Nashville producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who became sort of guru for you.
I actually came down to Nashville to interview another producer who was doing Moe Bandy’s records. I set up an appointment with him and never made it, ‘cause a mutual friend talked me into stopping by Jack’s place. Jack had never heard me. He just liked me and we hung out… for three days and nights. Then Jack took me to the airport and that’s where he said to me, “So, what do you for a living?” (laughs) I said “Well, I make records, Jack!” “Oh, how many records you sell?” I said, “Between 50 and 60 thousand.” And he looked at me and said, “What’s your problem?” I didn’t know I had one. He said, “Well, you better catch your plane.” I did, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said: What’s your problem? So that’s when I came back and started working with Jack.
You recorded together for months but nothing ever came out – what happened?
It was my first record for Asylum and Jack was making a record for Elektra at the same time. And by the end of that year neither one of us had a record to deliver (laughs). On the days that Jack was on and the band was happening, I had been partying too much. And the days I was set to sing, Jack would be partying. The two of us never quite got it together. But in retrospect it was a big year for me. I learned a lot from him about playing with people, playing with other musicians. I learned how to use a microphone. Nobody had ever taught me that stuff. I felt like I’d grown as an artist.
You ended up making your first Asylum album, Bruised Orange, with Steve Goodman producing. The album was a success, but then you did an about face with a rockabilly record, Pink Cadillac.
Bruised Orange did really well and Asylum was happy. So I decided now I want to make a noisy record – a live record with a band, and I want all the noise to stay. I didn’t want to use Dolby on the thing. I was big into being anti-Dolby at the time (laughs). But I couldn’t go back to Asylum and ask them to give me money to make another record with Jack [Clement] that I hadn’t made in the first place. So it was suggested I go to Memphis and talk to Knox Phillips and Jerry Phillips at the Phillips Recording Service.
Which is how you ended up working with their father, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. You’re probably the last artist he ever produced.
We would go into the studio at six every evening and play till six in the morning. We did that five nights a week for a good three months. Eventually, Sam drove by one night and saw the lights were on and came by to check out and see who was in his studio. The way Sam told it my voice sounded so awful he thought he’d stick around and see if he could fix it (laughs). And so he produced a couple things: Saigon and How Lucky Can One Man Get.
Was the experience working with him as intense as one might imagine?
It was crazy and incredible all at the same time. Sam was like a fire and brimstone preacher. He didn’t ever talk about the music, he talked about the way you did things. He would speak in parables. It was a total experience. I didn’t know he hadn’t produced anyone in years and years. He’d turned down McCartney! Said he didn’t want to do the Beatles. Whatever roads I went down, to actually cross paths with him, I wouldn’t give it up for nothing.
You moved to Nashville in 1980. Once you got there you started writing some country hits and then started your own label, Oh Boy.
I was spending all my time here when I wasn’t on the road, and my marriage was falling apart [in Chicago], so I figured I’d move down here. I got in with some good people, like Roger Cook, who I wrote Love Is On A Roll with and that went to Number 1 [Country] for Don Williams. Then I wrote Unwed Fathers with Bobby Braddock and Tammy Wynette cut that. One day, I heard those songs back to back on WSM and I thought, Man, I have arrived. I’m gonna go out and buy a Cadillac and I did (laughs). As far as my own career, I was getting fed up with the majors. I told my manager Al Bunetta, Let’s start our own record company, let’s just sell records to the people who come see us. I thought it would be more honest that way. That’s why we started Oh Boy. A lot of people figured we were shooting ourselves in the foot. But the ‘80s were terrible – when I heard Warner Brothers dropped Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, and Little Feat, they dropped a bunch of them in one month, I thought, What’s going on? This is crazy. Why would I try and get another major label deal?
The years that followed saw you growing your cult following out on the road, leading up to your “comeback” with The Missing Years.
In areas where we had busted through to playing concert halls, we were back in the clubs in the mid-‘80s. But as long as I was having a good time on the road and sold the records to fans, I thought that was enough. We had two albums, Aimless Love and German Afternoons, they both did good for our core audience. By [the early-‘90s], we got an offer from Columbia, a good-sized offer, like half a million bucks, which I turned down. I figured if there was that much interest we should kick it up ourselves, which is when we did The Missing Years. We were making a concentrated effort to make a record that could compete. I didn’t have to be an island and just make music for my fans. That’s where [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers bassist] Howie Epstein came in to produce. He pulled that record out of me like a dentist with a sore tooth. We were recording at Howie’s house in the Hollywood hills. I was singing in the bathroom; there were microphone cables up and down the hallways. We were cutting one instrument at a time, one song at a time. A song would take us over a week, sometimes two or three weeks. But, boy, we when he played stuff back to me I couldn’t believe how good it sounded.
You won a Grammy for The Missing Years, married Fiona, started a family – then you were diagnosed with neck cancer. After your surgery, were you worried that you wouldn’t be able to sing again?
I was more worried about just living and seeing my kids grow up, honestly. I couldn’t sing for about a year afterward, just didn’t have the power. I remember finally booking a show in Johnson City, Tennessee. I figured it was far enough in the sticks that if it didn’t go well people wouldn’t hear about it for a while (laughs). About 800 people showed up and I made it through the show. Afterwards, I stayed and shook hands with everybody that came out. It was really great. I didn’t know how much I’d missed it. That was the night I realized I can go back out and do this again.
You’ve been enjoying a pretty amazing run over the last few years. Your last album became your highest charting LP and got several Grammy nominations. You’ve been playing to big crowds…
Seems I can’t do any wrong these days. About five years ago, I was thinking about, not retiring, but just kicking back and doing fewer shows. But ever since I brought out [The Tree of Forgiveness] we’re doing everything we can just to keep up with it. It’s still selling after 18 months. I’m getting a lot of young kids coming to the shows, and in turn they’re going back and listening to my old stuff.
Do you feel vindicated for having done things your own way this whole time?
Everything I was doing all those years on the road, I thought I was just doing to get enough money to pay the bills, to put one foot in front of the other. But it’s all coming back to me now in the best way possible. I always believed in what I was writing, but I never expected a bigger audience. If you’re out there day after day, going around playing the same places, you pretty much think you’ve reached your audience. But there’s more people finding my music every day. So I feel extremely lucky, I really do.