Thursday, August 22

Box set documents Prine’s truly ‘Great Days’


Box set documents Prine’s truly ‘Great Days’

By Michael Tatum

From marrying a belly dancer who encourages him to blow up his
TV to wondering whether his cat’s death was an accident or a
suicide, nobody comes close to capturing the "Big Old Goofy World"
like John Prine.

Most singer-songwriters who emerged in the 1970s were either
shallow and self-pitying (Jackson Browne), corny and lightweight
(John Denver) or both (James Taylor). To compound their sins, all
of the of the above and others moved away from the roots of
singer-songwriting ­ blues, fold, and country ­ and sold
out their muse to the sterile, studio-slick, emotionally vacant
California sound.

Prine didn’t. He combined a sharp eye for detail and a poet’s
gift for metaphor with a back-to-basics commitment that earned him
the respect of his peers ­ Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen,
Tom Petty, Kris Kristoferson, and others. But like so many artists
who refuse to cheapen their art by pandering to commercial whims,
it didn’t exactly earn him widespread radio airplay or overwhelming
album sales.

But with Great Days, the new two-CD career retrospective from
Rhino Records, Prine has the last laugh. It re-establishes him as
nothing less than one of the great singer-songwriters of the rock
era, ranking with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison.

Discovered in the early 70s by Kris Kristoferson, who joked
Prine was "so good we might have to break his thumbs," Prine came
almost immediately to the attention of rock critics bored with the
bland self-absorption of Sweet Baby James and Harry Chapin. On his
self-titled first album, he sang about a heroin-addicted Vietnam
vet ("Sam Stone"), the elderly (the empathetic "Hello In There" and
"Angel From Montgomery"), and "Paradise," a coal-mining town he
visited in his youth. But he could crack a joke too ­ "Illegal
Smile" finds his harried protagonist ("All my friends turned out to
be insurance salesmen") trying to rationalize his marijuana use to
a judge: "I didn’t kill anyone/ I was just trying to have me some
fun."

And he didn’t stop there. In the 20-plus years since, he’s
turned out many fine records (Sweet Revenge and The Missing Years
among this writer’s favorites), and as this set proves, an almost
embarrassing amount of brilliant songs.

At his best, Prine never resorts to cheap sentiment, and rarely
ever relies on tired tropes and cliches to get his point across.
Even his love songs state universal feelings in striking ways.
Prine’s separation song, "Christmas In Prison," actually extends
the metaphor to include descriptions of the lonely things an ex-con
might actually be doing on Christmas in his cell: eating bad food,
carving pistols out of wood, and dreaming of his lost sweetheart,
even when he doesn’t dream. The chorus’s lovely tag line, "We’re
rolling my sweetheart / we’re flowing by God" is simple but
beautiful, reminiscent of the romanticism of Robert Burns’ best
poems.

Or take "Blue Umbrella." James Taylor sang ‘I’ve seen fire and
I’ve seen rain," but Prine’s weather metaphors are hardly as
contrived: "Just give me one more season," he sings to his lover,
"so I can figure out the other four."

But of course, the cuts that leap out on the first listening are
the miniature stand-up comedy routines, the ones that Prine fans
always seem to holler for at his concerts: the raucous Hank
Williams tribute/ parody "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink
After You," the hilarious pro-organ donation ditty "Please Don’t
Bury Me" ("I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around"),
and "Dear Abby," four fictitious, tongue-in-cheek letters to the
famed columnist, who advises "Stop wishing for bad luck and
knocking on wood." Not to mention "Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis
Hare Krishna Beauregard," (featuring backing vocals by Bonnie
Raitt) which deserves some kind of medal on the basis of its
outrageous title alone.

It should go without saying that this package, like other Rhino
anthologies, is beautifully packaged and sounds great. The booklet
is in itself worth the price of admission, featuring an amusing
song-by-song rundown by Prine himself.

The only criticism one could have of this first-rate is the
length ­ one could have comprised a four CD box set from Prine
that would have had no filler. But as an introduction to a
world-class songwriter, this will do.

MUSIC: The John Prine Anthology: Great Days. (Rhino)

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