By MARK GUARINO | Daily Herald Music Critic
Nov 19, 1999
John Prine is a cancer survivor and he sounds like one. Not his voice — it’s always had that scratch of someone who’s lived a thousand years.
No, Prine’s neck cancer has made him look at life a little more closely.
His songs have always done so. His impish wordplay and lackluster heroes have made him one of folk music’s best storytellers.
But except for one song, his first album in five years, “In Spite of Ourselves” (Oh Boy), is a collection of all covers, country duets between Prine and female singers like Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams and Trisha Yearwood.
Although a movie soundtrack obligation sparked the project, Prine kept digging to come up with a whole album. The songs, from the cornball George Jones and Tammy Wynette number, “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” to “Let’s Invite Them Over,” Ornie Wheeler’s ode to wife swapping, were all favorites of his father, who listened to country music every night in their Maywood home.
Now living in Nashville, Prine plans to visit Maywood when he’s back in town this week for four sold-out shows at the institution where he earned his chops, the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Although he’s played bigger halls here since, it’s the first time Prine will perform inside the school since the early ’70s.
The prospect of playing four shows at the Old Town School has helped him reminisce about his early life when he commuted to the school’s original location from that small, west suburban factory town.
“I really liked Maywood,” he said. “I thought Maywood itself was a kind of a melting pot. There were Mexicans and people from the south and blacks, compared to the Italians in Melrose (Park). I thought it was a pretty neat area to grow up in. When I got drafted, when I was in boot camp down in Louisiana, you’re meeting guys your own age from all around the country, some of them didn’t have that, they were really shocked when they left their home and went into the army.
“They had never been with Mexicans or black people, or anything, you know? I always thought, well geez, I must have come from a good place because I went to school with everybody.”
* * *
Prine’s family arrived in Maywood from Kentucky. Their lives ran the route of most new city immigrants. Periodically, relatives showed up to stay with them for weeks until they found factory jobs and got a place of their own.
Prine’s father, William, was a tool and die maker at the American Can Company nearby.
His brother, Dave, taught him guitar. As luck would have it, a neighbor who moved left a ukulele behind and Dave snatched it. Soon, he could play the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar, too.
“When I heard him play the guitar, I thought, ‘Geez, that’s my brother playing the guitar’,” Prine said. “‘I wonder how he does it.”
Prine learned at age 14. Immediately, he began writing songs.
“Yeah, it was very unusual. I don’t even think any of my friends knew I wrote songs. I just did it as a hobby. That or to impress girls.”
Luckily, the father of Prine’s girlfriend was the school custodian. One day, he snuck home a school tape recorder so Prine could record. Those songs, “Frying Pan” and “Sour Grapes,” later ended up on his first album, “Diamonds In the Rough,” in 1972.
“The other one we recorded was ‘Twist and Shout’. That wasn’t mine,” he laughed.
In the late ’60s, Maywood, and the people in it, set the stage for his later writing. There was turmoil brewing and his neighborhood would never be the same.
“I always felt like Maywood went through the same stuff the whole country was going through,” Prine said. “When Martin Luther King got killed, we didn’t have no store windows left. They bricked in all the windows. Things were changing rapidly then.”
For Prine, whose songs come alive with the people in them (think the junkie vet in “Sam Stone” or the lonely housewife in “Angel From Montgomery”), it’s no surprise his neighborhood had its share of characters, too.
“Everybody had a name,” he laughed. “One guy we called the King of the World. He wore white work gloves and he would walk by the stores. Some of the stores had black windows you could drive by and see your car in. And this guy would walk by ’em and walk by ’em looking at himself. Then he would run back and start all over again with his white gloves at his side.”
When Prine was a child, his father was elected the vice president of the local steelworkers union. It lasted 25 years.
“I think he only got 50 bucks a month extra for it, but he kind of dedicated his life to the union,” he said. “There was more glory in that.”
Growing up in a union house meant Prine witnessed pain and the strain of living a working class life. There were physical hardships but there were tiny rewards, too. Prine ended up writing a song about his father called “Paradise,” that ended up on his first album. His brother Dave and friend Steve Goodman both played on it. It’s a dialogue between father and son about going home to Kentucky but finding it had changed for the worst.
When he was 56, Prine’s father had a massive heart attack. It was two months before the album was to come out. So Prine borrowed a tape recorder and played him the song. Soon after, his father died.
“He used to take us to country bars, really rough places,” Prine said.
“The rougher the bar the better. He used to teach us to order two beers, one to drink, the other to hit somebody over the head with if the fight came over your way. He’d go in and just say in a really loud voice what his intentions were: he was going to play the jukebox really loud and if anybody had anything to say about it, why don’t they talk to him about it now because he really didn’t want any trouble later on.”
But even before he was making albums, Prine was married, living in a two-room apartment in Melrose Park and delivering mail in Maywood. He did that for six years straight out of high school.
“Besides washing dishes in a million different pizzerias, that was my big job,” he said. He quit when he was 23, six months before his first recording contract.
It didn’t take long to get one. He had been taking classes at the Old Town School, influenced by his brother who was teaching banjo lessons there.
Despite a stint in the army, he kept going there three or four times a week.
While working at the post office, he stumbled into his first musical job at the long-forgotten folk club, the Fifth Peg.
“I wasn’t looking to be a professional singer. I just got up to see if they liked my songs. They said ‘Why don’t you come here and do a couple of sets every Thursday night?’ And I said ‘How long do you have to sing?’ When they told me, I went home and wrote enough songs to fill up an hour. And that became my first album,” he said.
He quit the post office and began performing three nights a week.
“It wasn’t like I was looking to work all weekend. I just wanted to make the same amount I was making at the post office and sleep the rest of the week,” he said.
Prine’s Fifth Peg gigs drew larger and larger crowds. It was Prine’s late songwriting comrade Steve Goodman who brought him further attention.
Goodman was opening a show for Kris Kristofferson the same weekend cabaret singer Paul Anka was in town. Anka came to Kristofferson’s show and was knocked out by Goodman.
“(Goodman) saw how excited he was and said ‘If you think I’m good, you should see my buddy’,” Prine said. So all three hopped a cab to the Earl of Old Town club to see Prine.
Anka bought them both plane tickets.
“The next thing you know Goodman and I are on our way to New York. And we weren’t in New York for 24 hours before we both got record contracts. It was a real fairytale story,” he said.
Prine moved to Nashville in the late ’70s when he was spending much of his time recording there. He moved his mother there five years ago. He’s 53 and, having just battled a bout with cancer, songwriting hasn’t been a priority. Living has.
“I used to love it. I still do when I’m getting into the middle of it. But otherwise, I’d do anything I can to get out of it nowadays,” he said.
But when he’s back this week, it won’t be just any tour stop. There’s nothing to visit in Old Town, of course, it’s gone to the yuppies. The only folk club there is Starbucks.
But there’s still Maywood. He’ll plan to visit his brother Dave, who still lives there, working as an electrical engineer. He also is working on playing a benefit show at his old high school, Proviso East. He read in the paper this summer they need a new gymnasium floor. If all goes as planned, the show will be in February and Dave will open.
In terms of career highlights, Prine says with all sincerity, it will be his “pinnacle.”
But that’s next year. Right now, Prine is primed to meet and greet all his old friends.
As he says: “I am really looking forward to this.”
GRAPHIC: The Scoop
What: John Prine with Iris DeMent
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday
Tickets: $38/$36. Call (773) 728-6000. Sold out