There are two covers on Fair And Square but they are not obvious choices. First, the Carter Family: Bear Creek Blues comes from their repertoire: “My brother Dave taught me to play guitar and that was one of two records he gave me after he had taught me a couple of chords. The acoustic guitar is very prominent on their record. You could hear the guitar and imagine yourself trying to play like that. It was very direct and he thought it might encourage me – and it did.”
Then there is a song I have never heard before – Clay Pigeons by the spendidly-named Blaze Foley. “Blaze Foley is associated with Austin, Texas. He died in the 80s after being stabbed for trying to break up a fight in a bar. He was a friend of Townes Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams wrote a song about him called Drunken Angel. Blaze wrote really good songs, one of them being If I Could Only Fly, which Merle Haggard did. I wanted to hear some other songs that he had written. Finally, someone in Austin sent me a Blaze Foley record. It included his version of If I Could Only Fly and right after it was Clay Pigeons. That sounded so much like me that I thought I had written it. That song haunted me. I learnt how to play it and taught it to my band and we did it at soundchecks. When we were making the album, I thought we could cut a version of it. I really love the song: it’s a beautiful song.”
Fair And Square is released on Prine’s own label, Oh Boy. “About 20 years ago, I didn’t want to work with any of the big labels and there weren’t that many independents. Jack Clement more or less talked me into doing this. He said that it was the one sure way I could do what I wanted, and he was right. It’s worked out to be a regular little record company. I like putting out Steve Goodman albums. We’ve found live performances that have been recorded really well and he was great on stage. He could change a set of guitar strings and keep on talking. That’s hard to do.”
Prine’s previous album was one of country duets, In Spite Of Ourselves, in 1999. “I did that because I love those boy and girl songs that you get in country music. The girl sings one line and the boy another and they come together on the chorus. You get it in show songs too, but not too many other places. I really like the country songs which are about cheating or meeting or running away. Country songs lend themselves to that and we did it on some songs that weren’t boy and girl duets before like ‘So Sad’.”
‘ So Sad’ with Connie Smith is one of the killer tracks. “Oh yeah, I could listen to Connie Smith sing all day. Her voice is such a beautiful instrument. I didn’t expect all those great singers to agree to singing with me. I expected them to be polite and say, ‘I’d like to but I’m going to China on tour.’ Everybody said yes and they showed up too. Usually when I sing with a female partner it takes some of the roughness out of my voice but not always, and you never really know until you put the voices together. In all these cases, we put the voices together and it made a nice sound.”
The album includes ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose’ with his wife, Fiona. “Yeah, and she just walked in the door so I’ll have to go in a minute. She’s not a professional singer but she’s Irish and they all have their party pieces. There are nine pubs in the little town where we have a cottage and there is music in all of them, every night of the week.”
Could John see himself making an Irish album? “Not particularly but I really love the music. There is a definite link between Irish and American music, but you know that. I could make an Irish album and I’d enjoy it but I don’t know how good it would turn out.”
There is a song about Fiona on the new album, ‘She Is My Everything’: “Just about. The verse which mentions Bruce Lee is actually about Priscilla Presley. I say ‘every’ so many times in that song – everything, everybody – that I put in Eveready batteries too. We use Duracell.” See what I mean about the quirkiness of John Prine’s songs, but that helps to make them great.