This interview appeared in Country Music People, October 2005.
Over the last 35 years, John Prine has made thoughtful and, at times, provocative records. He came up as a singer/songwriter alongside his friend, Steve Goodman, and he wrote such familiar material as Hello In There, Angel From Montgomery and Paradise. In the 80s he moved closer to country music and wrote I Just Want To Dance With You with Roger Cook, which remains the only John Prine song to make the UK Top 20. There have been further multi-covered songs with Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness and You Got Gold. Marrying an Irish girl, John Prine became a father when he was 49, but his idyllic life was shattered when he contracted cancer. The treatment has been successful and Prine is back on the road promoting his new album, Fair And Square, on his own Oh Boy record label.
“I’m keeping pretty busy,” John Prine tells me from his Nashville home, “Having just put the record out, I’ve had to get round to all the major cities in the US. I’ve got some dates in the UK but not many and I want to do more. I’m going to be in Ireland for the summer next year and so that’ll be a better time to do them.”
And what can we expect? “I am working with my own band which comprises one upright bass and one electric guitar. Jason Wilber is on electric guitar and actually Dave Jacques comes back and forth between electric and upright bass, depending on the music. I like the upright for the upbeat country stuff. It gives it a bluegrassy feel.”
Both Jason and Dave are on the new album, which features some very strong songs but not one called Fair And Square. “When I got near the end, I realised that there wasn’t a title from one of the songs which would fit the whole collection, so I came up with Fair And Square. I thought that was the original position of the record. It came from a fair and square position. I did think of writing a song called Fair And Square to fit in with the record but then I thought that I would be chasing my tail. It’s a good title though. Maybe somewhere down the line, I’ll write a song called Fair And Square.”
Even at the best of times, John Prine had a croaky half-sung, half-rasping style. Now his voice is even deeper, but had there been a point when he thought he wouldn’t sing again? “Only before they did the surgery. They didn’t know where the principal point of the cancer was. It could have been anywhere in the throat, the neck or the tongue. Until they found it, they couldn’t tell me. They found it at the base of the tongue and they removed it and gave me radiation for the rest of the area. In the end, my voice lowered a little bit, I think for the better.” John Prine gives a throaty chuckle.
John was encouraged by the example of his friend Steve Goodman: “His whole attitude towards life was unyielding. The doctors only gave Steve six months to live back in 1968 and he lived until 1984. Cancer was at his doorstep all the time and Steve just refused to answer the door.”
John Prine’s songs were so idiosyncratic that it was hard to imagine him writing with anybody else, but his attitude to songwriting has changed with many co-writes on the album. Was this down to the way things worked in Nashville? “No, no, those guys in Nashville are doing it as a business and as I see it, they might as well be working in a factory. They write by volume. At the end of the month they have ten songs written and they hope to have one good one. I’d rather just do that one song as I have plenty of other stuff to do the rest of the time.”