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Read My Lips

Prine tribute Doodad Farm poster segment 02-26-2015

Almost time for my bootheels to be wanderin’, as Bob Dylan sings. The first readings for John Prine: In Spite of Himself  have been scheduled in central North Carolina:

Readings will be a new experience for me, and I’m still working out the details. At this point my plan is to talk about researching and writing the book, read a few passages, answer questions, and have some musician friends join me. Additional public appearances are in the works.

But wait – there’s more! Mike Smith, curator of Greensboro’s At Home Folk Art Gallery, has invited me to appear on his radio show on WQFS at Guilford College at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 10. Mike has asked me to talk about my book, share some of my favorite Prine songs, and be the butt of his many jokes.

Looking ahead to spring, the good folks at Greensboro’s Doodad Farm, Laurel and Dean Driver, have kindly agreed to host A Tribute to John Prine to benefit Voices Together at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 17. The show will feature some of North Carolina’s finest singers and songwriters, including John Howie Jr., Molly McGinn, Caleb Caudle, Chip Robinson, and many others. There won’t be much room for me to get a word in edgewise with nearly two dozen performers singing nearly three dozen Prine songs, but I will speak briefly about my book and introduce a song or two by reading passages about them.

The singers will perform songs spanning Prine’s storied career, from “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery” to “Unwed Fathers” and “In Spite of Ourselves.” As usual for Doodad Farm events there will be no ticket sales, but guests who have the means are asked to make a donation of $10 to $15 or more. All proceeds will go to Voices Together, a Durham-based non-profit that uses music to help people with developmental disabilities increase communication and social / emotional skills.

“Bring a chair, a cooler, your kids, and friendly dogs out to the farm,” Dean Driver says. “Goats will be provided.”

Legal Smile

marijuana leavesAlaska just became the third state to legalize marijuana. John Prine has steadfastly maintained that “Illegal Smile,” one of the enduring classics from his 1971 debut album, was not about smoking pot, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. “Fortunately,” he sang, “I have the key to escape reality.”

He wrote the song at home in the Chicago suburbs the year of Woodstock and Altamont, as documented on his 1988 album John Prine Live: “It was 1969, and nothing seemed to make much sense to me. I liked to laugh and when I can’t laugh I like to smile. Some people think you should have a reason to smile or they think you’re up to something, so it must be an illegal smile.”

Not everyone believes his innocent explanation for the song’s origins. When he played the song early on for an underground TV show in Chicago, the cameraman kept zooming in on a fake marijuana plant. (The tune would make it to national television a few years later as the improbable theme song for a short-lived sitcom.)

Fast forward a few decades. An aspiring singer-songwriter named Kacey Musgraves – born the year John Prine Live came out – approached Prine before his annual Christmas concert, according to a recent Rolling Stone Country article: “This little girl comes up to me with her buddy…. They wanted to take me out in the parking lot and get me high. I said, ‘Uh, gee, thanks but… no, thanks.'”

Since then, Musgraves has become a fast-rising Nashville star. Her major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, has earned her multiple awards, including a Grammy for Best Country Album. Unfortunately, the album didn’t include “Burn One with John Prine,” in which Musgaves sings, “my idea of heaven / Is to burn one with John Prine.”

Recently Musgraves got to do the next best thing, according to the RS Country article: perform with Prine on the annual Cayamo cruise. Here’s a fan’s video of her telling the story and singing “Burn One” as Prine looks on. “Maybe he would sit awhile,” she sings, “and render me an illegal smile.”

Honky tonk pipedream

American Aquarium Wolves album cover for blog 02-20-2015Wolves, the new album by North Carolina-based American Aquarium, debuted at No. 24 on the Americana Music Charts this week, and it’s getting great reviews. I interviewed front man B.J. Barham for Relish in November. The band played a nice Prine cover at a recent show in Greensboro, giving a serious honky tonk flair to “Spanish Pipedream.” (Dig that pedal steel!)

Sold American!

We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues
We got country, swing and rockabilly, too
We got jazz, country-Western and Chicago blues
It’s the greatest music that you ever knew
It’s American music, it’s American music, it’s American music
It’s the greatest sound right from the USA

– the Blasters, “American Music”

John Prine: In Spite of Himself will be the fifth book in University of Texas Press’s American Music Series, following portraitsMenconi David Losering book cover 02-17-2015 of the Flatlanders, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, and Ryan Adams / Whiskeytown. One of my editors, David Menconi, wrote the Adams book. The pace of the series will pick up over the next couple of years, as David details in a recent post on his blog.

The series will also expand beyond the country / folk / Americana realm in 2016 with books about Madonna and Mary J. Blige. I’m especially interested in Kristin Hersh’s forthcoming book about Vic Chesnutt. He was a brilliant eccentric who clawed his way back from partial paralysis after a teenaged drunk-driving accident. Chesnutt released a series of thorny, beautiful albums that showcased his yowling Southern drawl, inspired guitar playing, and unique sensibility.

I had the great pleasure of spending a cold 1993 day in Athens, Georgia, with Chesnutt and his wife, Tina, interviewing them for Option magazine. Chesnutt wrestled with many personal demons, failing in several suicide attempts. Lacking health insurance and overwhelmed by medical bills, he finally succeeded, dying on Christmas day 2009. Keep an eye out for Kristin’s book, and take half an hour sometime to enjoy Pete Sillen’s unflinching, deeply moving 1994 documentary, “Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt.”

The race is on

Hi, folks. In slibookcoverghtly more than a month University of Texas Press will publish my first book, John Prine: In Spite of Himself, part of its American Music Series. I’m starting this blog as a companion piece to the book. Watch this space for news of upcoming events related to the book, behind-the-scenes stories and photos about researching and writing it, and more.

The big news so far: Publishers Weekly put my book on its list of Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2015, alongside upcoming releases from the likes of Toni Morrison, Nick Hornby, Thomas McGuane, Kim Gordon, and Erik Larson. I was surprised and honored to find myself in such esteemed company.

PW gave the book a positive review: “Huffman’s book will make us want to pick up Prine’s albums and listen to them once again or for the first time.” Kirkus also gave it a good review, saying “Huffman proves an amiable companion as he leads readers though the musical development of an artist whose songwriting uniqueness has prevailed over a decided lack of ambition and decades of commercial indifference.”

Thanks for checking in! See you soon.