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Busted Strings & Crazy Gods: A Lost Interview with John Prine

Words and photos, John Kruth

It was a cold rainy night in New York (November 5, 1986) when John Prine took the stage with Philip Donelly from Dublin, standing on Prine’s right, picking an orange Stratocaster. They kick off the set with a revved-up version of A.P. Carter’s “Lulu Walls,” when Prine immediately pops a D string on his Martin D-28. In the interim, somebody in the crowd hands him a customized wish/set-list complete with dozens of song titles scribbled in blue magic marker letters. The two are joined by Stuart Duncan of the Nashville Bluegrass Band on fiddle and mandolin and they play Prine’s “The Torch Singer,” and “Storm Windows.” “Silence is golden until it screams through your bones,” Prine wails. Donnelly frames John’s voice with intricate riffs. He’s been backing up Prine for seven years now. A great version of “Donald and Lydia” follows. Donnelly picks up an acoustic guitar for a pair of duets – “Souvenirs” and “Blue Umbrella.” Dressed in a sleeveless motorcycle t-shirt, Prine struts around the stage like a rooster. Good-natured, joking, with a new haircut and shave. Sometimes he says things that sound like he’s watched too many reruns of Mayberry RFD. When people shout out their favorite tunes he replies, “You always act that way at the dinner table?”

John Prine at home in Nashville during the mid-eighties.

The crowd hangs on his every word, singing along, never missing a lick as Prine romps through the rest of the set that includes “Sabu the Elephant Boy,” “Illegal Smile,” and “Angel from Montgomery.” Not much of a lead guitarist himself John chunks out a rhythm solo on his new number, “Linda Goes to Mars.” “My idea of a good solo is, if you can’t be good, be loud!” he tells the crowd with a chuckle. The audience grows quiet and reverential as Prine fingerpicks “Sam Stone,” his tribute to Vietnam War veterans. He momentarily transforms the rowdy old Ritz into a church, as everyone solemnly mumbles the lyrics… “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose…” But a moment later Donnelly breaks into a rollicking version of Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama” and everybody starts to dance. Prine has always loved rockabilly and cut the much-maligned, rollicking Pink Cadillac back in 1979. But just a minute or so into the tune he busts another D string while Donnelly’s fingers chase each other up the fretboard of his orange Strat. “They don’t make a string that I can’t break!” Prine joked.

The next day I caught up with John for a late breakfast/early lunch and a brief, mostly painless interview. He claimed to have had a bit of a headache and didn’t know if he should order a vodka and tonic or take an Alka Seltzer. “Must’ve been the vegetables in that soup,” he joked and lit a Marlboro.

Left to Right: John Prine and the author onstage at the Oshkosh Opera House in Oshkosh Wisconson,  circa early-nineties.

What are you listening to these days?

Oh, the Mills Brothers… Lefty Frizzel. The kids are crazy about ‘em [laughs]!

How did you get started on the guitar?

My brother Dave taught me how to play “Freight Train” and “Wildwood Flower” instead of hangin’ out at the pool hall.

What is your songwriting process like?

God, I wish I had one! I don’t feel like I write them. They just knock on my door [laughs]. The best ones take less time to write them than to sing them. Sometimes they come along that fast.

You don’t go back and revise the chords or the lyrics?

There’s no reason to. I edit as I go. I don’t think too much about the words I’m saying. It’s the way they sound. I’m working with the simplest of melodies. As limited as I am on the guitar, when I write a melody, it usually all comes together at once, the words and melody. They take three or five minutes to write. The rest of the year I just sit around and go “Whew!”

Are you inspired by stories in the newspaper, bits of conversation or something you catch on the TV?

I wish it was that simple. I cover my refrigerator with articles from the newspaper because I love to look at headlines about guys who live in aluminum rooms, or something… But I can’t remember ever getting a song from that. I don’t know where these songs come from! It used to be so much easier!

Did it make you more conscious of the process once you were expected to write songs for your next album?

I never want to become too conscious of where my songs come from. But I don’t have much of a problem with that as I don’t have much of a memory [laughs]. If they’re a gift from god, then he’s crazy [laughs].

Is your new album, [German Afternoons produced by Jim Rooney] your first that’s been nominated for a Grammy Award?

No, in ’71 I was up for Best New Artist of the Year. Me, the Eagles, Loggins & Messina, Harry Chapin and America. America won…

John Prine at the Tennessee Valley Authority during the mid-eighties.

You’ve been on the road quite a lot lately.

Yeah, I get different cities mixed up with different hotels and clubs from other cities.  It really throws me off when I see a person I meet in one city in another town.

Do you play any other instruments besides guitar, either as a writing tool or to add color to your recordings?

I’ve been meaning to take up the mandolin.

You’ve got a new single coming out soon.

Yeah, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.” I’m trying to settle down and make more “sensible” music these days. The flip side of that record is called “Kokomo, Indiana.” I wrote it on my front lawn. It’s the only a cappella song I’ve ever written. It should be out by April.

It will probably be out before this gets published.

It’ll be on the TV’s Greatest Hits ads by then! [laughs]

 

John Kruth

John Kruth

John Kruth is the author of three musical biographies to date including "To Live’s To Fly – The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt" (recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award - 2007 – DaCapo Press), and "Rhapsody in Black – The Life & Music of Roy Orbison" (2013 – BackBeat/Hal Leonard Books). In 2015 BackBeat published Kruth’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, "This Bird Has Flown." John’s latest book "A Friend of the Devil – The Glorification of the Outlaw in Song from Robin Hood to Rap" was published September 2017, by BackBeat. Kruth’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wire (UK), No Depression, American Songwriter, Sing Out!, Wax Poetics, Folk Roots (UK), Shindig (UK) and So Jazz (Switzerland).
John Kruth

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