Back all the way

There’s a line Bob Dylan sings in “Mississippi” that could be taken as a comment on the work he was doing at that time: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” The song appeared on what would turn out to be a late-career masterpiece – even if Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album is now almost old enough to vote.

Prine John The Tree of Forgiveness album cover 04-13-2018

The line applies equally well to John Prine’s new late-career masterpiece, The Tree of Forgiveness, out today. His voice and songwriting will never equal what they were in Prine’s heyday as a New Dylan, during the waning days of the Nixon administration, but his fans couldn’t ask for a more engaging, delightfully wry album from Prine 40 odd years later.

Like “Love and Theft,” The Tree of Forgiveness is a mordant reflection on death and dying that’s great fun to listen to, Grandpa gleefully dishing dirt to the kids at a family reunion – or maybe a wake. While Prine’s new record has its bleak moments (the mid-album “Summer’s End” and “Caravan of Fools” in particular), they’re surrounded by steady flashes of his trademark wit, warmth, surreal imagery, and sheer joy at being alive. Prine has survived cancer scares and lost a steady stream of friends and loved ones (some referenced by name in the closing cut, “When I Get to Heaven”), and while he clearly sees the Grim Reaper lurking in the shadows, he mostly flips Death the bird and goes about his business across the 10 tracks of The Tree of Forgiveness.

This is Prine’s first album of new material in well over a decade, following a duo album of chestnuts with Mac Wiseman, his third live album, a collection of early demos and radio appearances, a vinyl reissue of his classic 1991 album The Missing Years, and – most memorably – For Better, or Worse, the 2016 sequel to his classic 1999 album of duets with female singers, In Spite of Ourselves. It was a worthy followup, despite breaking no new ground. I’m quite happy to report that my assumptions about the death of Prine’s songwriting muse were completely unfounded. (Though he’ll be 84 if he waits another 13 years to follow up this one.)

The first few listens to The Tree of Forgiveness haven’t revealed any masterpieces, to my ears, but it’s an album full of the stuff of Prine legend, from the downhome imagery of “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” the lead track, to “When I Get to Heaven,” a jug band romp about the afterlife. That final track includes spoken-word passages reminiscent of 1990s Prine classics such as “Jesus the Missing Years” and “Lake Marie,” a playful dig at music critics (“those syphilitic parasatics”), and this memorable passage:

I always will remember the words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead”
I hope to prove him wrong

Prine sounds more reverent than ever on The Tree of Forgiveness, even with his customary irreverence never more than a couplet or two away. “When I Get to Heaven” is a laundry list of the things Prine wants to do in the afterlife, from smoking a cigarette nine miles long to catching up with his late brother Doug, parents, and maternal aunts (“’cause that’s where all the love starts”).

Several old friends and one comparatively new one helped Prine write these songs. He has been collaborating with most of these guys for decades: Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, and Keith Sykes. McLaughlin co-wrote “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” the Prine song with the most memorable title since “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.” It’s a lightly rollicking reflection on mortality worthy of another wry songwriter who routinely laughed in the face of death, the late Warren Zevon.

One song, “God Only Knows,” was resurrected from a memorable writing session 40 years ago with Wall of Sound producer-turned-convicted murderer Phil Spector. (Prine and Spector also co-wrote “If You Don’t Want My Love” from 1978’s Bruised Orange at that time.) But Prine and McLaughlin penned “Caravan of Fools” with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who was born the year Prine’s sixth album came out. “Boundless Love,” a sweet song with Prine backed mostly by a subdued organ, is a kissin’ cousin to the title track of the singer’s 1984 album Aimless Love.

There’s no mistaking the ravages of time and health problems on Prine’s voice, which was never what you’d call dulcet in the first place. But he and producer Dave Cobb (who has worked with a host of Prine acolytes, from Sturgill Simpson to Jason Isbell) wisely hang it out there in all its ragged glory, with spare accompaniment relegated almost entirely to the background. Name guests Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile barely register as anything more than background vocalists, hired guns. From beginning to end, The Tree of Forgiveness shines the spotlight on Prine’s lyrics, workmanlike melodies, and joyous croak.

Prine sounds simultaneously old as dirt and fresh as a spring flower on The Tree of Forgiveness. It’s easily his best album since The Missing Years 27 years ago, and a welcome surprise half a century into a career never lacking in cheery surprises.

Sing a song for Scuppernong

scuppernong-books-sign-downloaded-09-07-2016Southern Living magazine recently named Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro one of the “South’s Best Bookstores,” and its Words of Note series is one of many things that make it a special place. The good folks at Scuppernong have been kind enough to ask me to return for a reading on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. Two of North Carolina’s finest singer-songwriters (and frequent collaborators), Molly McGinn and Sam Frazier, will join me to sing some John Prine songs.

I am honored to share the mike at Scuppernong with a number of other music book authors, including David Menconi, one of my editors for John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a fellow author in the University of Texas Press’s American Music Series. David will speak Friday, Sept. 9, about his book Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, which launched the series in 2012. Other writers at Words of Note will include Penny Parsons – who I worked with regularly when she was a publicist at Sugar Hill Records – talking about her fine new biography Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler, and Emily Edwards, a UNC-Greensboro media studies professor who will read from her Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House.

The Words of Note series at Scuppernong is part of 17 Days, Greensboro’s annual arts and culture festival, and coincides with the second year of a three-year run by the National Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro. I can’t think of many places I’d rather be, music-wise, than Greensboro in September.

Meanwhile, there has been some big news from Prine lately. His first album of newly recorded material in nearly a decade, For Better, or Worse, will come out Sept. 30. It’s a sequel to his beloved 1999 album In Spite of Ourselves, and like that collection features Prine performing classic country duets with female singers. A couple of singers from In Spite of Ourselves are back for the new album (Iris DeMent and Prine’s wife, Fiona), but most of the cast is new, including veteran performers such as Kathy Mattea and Alison Krauss joined by relative newcomers such as Miranda Lambert (who covered Prine’s “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round” on her Revolution album in 2009) and Kacey Musgraves (a rising star who paid tribute in her song “Burn One with John Prine”).

Finally, Prine and another acclaimed singer-songwriter who also began his career in the 1970s, Tom Waits, have been named this year’s winners of the prestigious PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards. They are scheduled to receive the awards Sept. 19 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Rosanne Cash, a member of the nominating committee, told Rolling Stone, “They’ve contributed definitive works to the American canon. That’s basically it. You can’t imagine a broad version of the American songbook without the songs of these people.”

Eddie and Eddie on the air; Prine turns down Bill Murray

My latest radio interview about John Prine: In Spite of Himself is online and ready to stream. I sat down with Eddie Garcia, a producer for WFDD, the NPR affiliate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., to talk about Prine’s life and music and the process of writing the book. (Garcia is a fine musician in his own right – he plays in a rock band called 1970s Film Stock, and he previously played in a duo called Jews and Catholics.) Listen to Triad Arts Weekend online or catch a broadcast of the show at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.

IA_Very_Murray_Christmas_postern other news, Prine had to decline an invitation to perform in Bill Murray’s highly anticipated new holiday special on Netflix on Demand, “A Very Murray Christmas,” according to one of the show’s writers, Mitch Glazer, a music journalist turned screenwriter, and a longtime Murray collaborator. Glazer told the Albany Daily Star they plan to include Prine “if and when we do another one.” “Bill and I saw him in Charleston,” Glazer said. “We wanted him to go but he had hip surgery.”

Murray, like Prine, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Prine was friends with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in their pre-“Saturday Night Live” days with Chicago’s Second City, where Murray also got his start in comedy. Belushi, Prine has said, “used to come around over to the Earl of Old Town when they had breaks at Second City – Belushi’d come across the street. And when we had breaks, we’d go watch Second City. Belushi used to do Marlon Brando singin’ my songs” – including “Angel from Montgomery.”

PrineFest West coming to Winston-Salem October 29

PrineFest West tribute poster 10-22-2015Some of the finest singers and songwriters in the North Carolina Piedmont will join me for another tribute to John Prine October 29, this time at Coffee Park ARTS in downtown Winston-Salem. I will introduce a few songs with passages from John Prine: In Spite of Himself, but the musicians will be the stars of PrineFest West.
Come join us!

Martha Bassett ● Caleb Caudle ● Doug Davis ● Dan Dockery ● Sam Frazier ● Jack Gorham ● Elliott Humphries ● Ken Mickey ● Tyler Nail ● Bruce Piephoff ● Laurin Stroud ● Lee and Susan Terry ● Skip Staples ● and more!

Books & Beer @ Fearrington Village

Menconi David Ray Benson book cover 10-06-2015This week I’m finally emerging from hibernation (AKA a bunch of big freelance projects that kept me burning the midnight oil all summer) to talk some more about John Prine: In Spite of Himself. The festivities start at 5 p.m. Thursday at Roost, the beer garden at Fearrington Village south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and continue through 8 p.m. I was invited to join the party by one of my editors on the Prine book, David Menconi, who has a new book out himself.

David’s latest is an as-told-to Ray Benson memoir called Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel. Elliott Humphries, front man for Be the Moon, will join us to sing songs by Prine and Ryan Adams, subject of David’s previous book, Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown.

Come on out! Admission is free, and there will be plenty of craft beer on tap.

Alone in his room with his radio on

Eric Alper

John Prine: In Spite of Himself has made the rounds on radio shows this summer. This weekend you can catch me on satellite radio talking to music-biz veteran Eric Alper (@ThatEricAlper), who did PR work in Canada for years for Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records. Alper interviewed me for his radio show out of Toronto, and it airs on SiriusXm (@SiriusXMCanada) Channel 167 on Saturday, August 1, at noon, 4 and 11 p.m., and Sunday, August 2, at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 7 p.m.

In July, Leigh Paterson of Wyoming Public Radio interviewed me about a lawsuit against Peabody Energy that quotes from the lyrics to “Paradise,” where Prine sings about “Mr. Peabody’s coal train” hauling away a beloved town in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. His parents were born and raised around Paradise, and Prine and his brothers spent summers there as children. Peabody has asked a judge to strike Prine’s lyrics from a lawsuit filed by protesters.