By Mark Guarino
An invitation from your high school to return home and be honored may be the height of revenge for any former misfit during the acne years.
But for John Prine, class of 1964, it tasted just like humble pie.
During the folk music auteur’s homecoming concert at Proviso East High School in Maywood Saturday, Prine was certainly taken aback by all the attention. Last November, he told the Daily Herald this concert would be the “pinnacle” of his career and there was no doubt Saturday he was serious.
Everything about the evening was geared for evoking warm memories. Most of the school auditorium was filled with friends from years past who remembered Prine, a star gymnast at the school, as “Johnny.” His older brother Dave, who first taught him guitar and still lives in Maywood, opened the show, playing century-old folk ballads with partner Tyler Wilson. For an encore, a third brother Billy showed up so all three could trade verses on Prine’s song, “Paradise.” Which was appropriate since the song laments the spot of rural Kentucky where their father was born and which fell, long ago, to developers.
Prine’s family home was only a block and a half from the school and he remembered having the school’s clocktower always in view from his bedroom window. “I was still never on time for school,” he said.
But what the event gave credence to most was the age-old advice that writers should write what they know. Prine admitted to spending that day just driving around Maywood, revisiting old storefronts, houses, intersections and bars that offered characters, dialogue or situations that ended up shaped into his songs.
There was his old job on North Ave. scrubbing parking lots, the restaurant down Madison St. where his sweetheart dumped him, the intersection at 20th and Division where he witnessed a car wreck, or that mail route in nearby Westchester he delivered Reader’s Digests and thought up songs.
From there sprang the songs that bought Prine his career: “Donald and Lydia,” “Hello In There,” “Lake Marie,” “Fish and Whistle,” and other beauties of simplicity.
“I bet you had no idea those songs came from here,” he said.
The two-and-a-half hour concert benefited the Maywood Fine Art Association, run by Lois and Ernie Baumann, friends from the old days who also once owned the town’s central bohemian stomping grounds during the Vietnam ‘60s: a bookstore Prine hung out in 30 years ago.
Prine is recouping from a battle with neck cancer, which explains his fervent tour schedule lately, promoting a new set of duets with female country singers and even an acting role in an upcoming Billy Bob Thorton movie. He’s lived in Nashville since the ‘70s, but only lately has been looking back so much. Last November, he played four nights at the Old Town School of Folk Music, the place he first learned his chops.
“After a bout of cancer, you not only appreciate things but you appreciate them moreso,” he explained.
By night’s end, Prine was awarded a vase the school called the “First Really Cool Guy From Proviso Award.” Little girls in ballet outfits entered dancing, one by one, to hand him roses he could put inside it.
Prine, knuckling away the tears, looked like he might be illustrating a point he made earlier: “what a rich childhood.”