To hear John Prine tell it — as he did Saturday afternoon (April 19) to an attentive crowd at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville — there are simple explanations for the phenomenal course of events in his folk-country songwriting career.
Of course, you tend to take a veteran artist’s self-deprecation with a grain of salt when another part of the building houses a spotlight exhibit on him and while his original, hand-scrawled lyrics are simultaneously deserving of museum display and still inspiring cover versions in the world beyond those walls.
Journalist and songwriter Peter Cooper was Prine’s interviewer and straight man for the day and an expert at setting up his subject’s marvelously wry, conversational storytelling.
Prine credited his inability to do a passable imitation of Hank Williams singing a Hank Williams song with starting him on the writing path, as a sort of stopgap measure, at the tender age of 14.
And it was only on a whim, he insisted, that he first tried out a trio of his tunes on non-family members at an amateur night at the Chicago folk club the Fifth Peg. That he was met with stunned silence afterwards rather than applause had him assuming the worst.
“Not only do they not like it, they don’t even think it’s a song,” he recalled thinking at the time.
As it turned out, he’d inadvertently landed himself a weekly live gig.
Soon enough, in that very same room, he’d call upon liquid courage to play an after-hours set for a hot-shot songwriter named Kris Kristofferson, after which he’d be invited to open Kristofferson’s big-time showcase in New York City, after which he’d find himself with a big-time record deal of his own.
Prine spoke at length about the early, inexperienced days when he wrote songs like “Sam Stone,” since enshrined as a profoundly human narration of a soldier’s struggles after returning from Vietnam. Prine was, as he so nonchalantly put it, simply “laying [his] view of the world on the line,” unsure of how it would be received.
“You don’t always know what your song’s about until you sing it for people,” he explained, offering the “Sam Stone” lyric — “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes” — as an example of one of the many lines that have drawn audience responses he’d never anticipated, thereby illuminating the spirit of a song for him.
When it comes to the big country cuts Prine’s had, stretching back to Don Williams’ “Love Is on a Roll,” Prine said co-writers like Roger Cook have helped him reign in his verbose singer-songwriter tendencies and arrive at songs concise enough for bona fide recording artists.
Prine joked throughout about his own “wheezy, out-of-tune” voice which had been further weathered by the passage of time, a bout with throat cancer some years ago and particularly potent spring allergies. But the ground-down tone of his singing didn’t at all diminish the wit in his delivery when Cooper asked him to play “Angel From Montgomery,” “Sam Stone” and, as a closer, “Paradise” on exactly the same guitar Prine used back at the Fifth Peg, all those albums and accolades ago.
At times, Cooper posed questions that’d been submitted by Facebook fans, but when he asked Prine whether writing’s grown easier or harder over the years, the query was clearly his own, as an invested admirer and practitioner of the same craft.
Prine’s response was the one-liner of the day.
“Most of the time, I’d rather go get a hotdog than write a song.”