John Prine - To believe in this living
I'm floating through an outmoded Chicago newspaper database that gets used these days about as frequently as rotary phones, looking for bits and pieces about one of the Windy City's favorite singing and songwriting sons. The keywords "John Prine" bring up the expected reviews and articles, some co-billing him with his dear buddy Steve Goodman, as in "Prine, Goodman Battle Show Biz Tradition" from July 20, 1978. There are featurey parsings of personality like "Behind Prine's Woes Lurks Lot Of Humor" (from the same week), and articles you would pursue if you thought they lived up to their promise, like "Why Is John Prine Singing?", a Chicago Tribune query from January 21, 1979. And then, interspersed among the links, are a number of seamy tabloid headlines, including "2 Hurt In Fire, Mother Charged" and "Bond Set In Murder, Arson Plot" and "Cabdriver, 18, Shot To Death." Why they come up is of less interest than what they evoke. Prine may be the guy who wrote "It's A Big Old Goofy World", but as anyone who has spent any time with his songs knows, mundane violence, mainly emotional but sometimes physical, seeps through them. He's an intrepid reporter on silent sufferers who have been cut out of life's rewards, who can't fit in, who are neglected by fathers and mothers and Big Brother, who don't have that fifth season to explain the other four. Sometimes, the violence is front and center. "Lake Marie", one of Prine's masterpieces, was inspired in part by a series of grisly murders he remembers the Chicago news media having a field day with when he was a kid. "Saw it on the news, on the TV news in a black and white video," he sings. "You know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows. Shadows, that's exactly what it looks like." And that's what it sounds like when the Vietnam veteran in "Sam Stone" shoots all that money in his arm, or when the kid with two first names in "Six O'Clock News" ends up with his brains on the sidewalk. "I felt I had to tell funny stories before I went into those songs, just to, you know, let up on the crowd," says Prine, reflecting on his early days of performing. "I thought they were so sad or something, that they were in such a miserable place. That's why I came up with some of the humorous songs, too, just so I could get back to the sad ones." None of this is to say it isn't a big old goofy world. On a sunshiny March day in Nashville, where Prine has lived for 25 years, it was Meat Loaf Friday, meaning Prine's favorite food was one of the specials at a local eatery. Yesterday, somewhere else, was Meat Loaf Thursday. He keeps track of where there's a meat loaf special every day of the week. Sad to report, the place he went to on Meat Loaf Tuesday closed up shop recently, but hey, it's a big town. Unlike Los Angeles, Nashville may not have a restaurant that serves potatoes eleven different ways -- have I mentioned he's also big on spuds? But it does know how to fry. Everything. Prine moved here in 1980, after his first marriage ran aground. His career was in a serious rut, and he was on the verge of a permanent split from the major labels. Perched on a chair in the office of his longtime business partner, Al Bunetta, in the modest Music Row headquarters of Oh Boy, the independent label of which he is "nighttime president," Prine was in a low-key mode. Could be he was saving up energy for his dinner-hour assignment: taking his kids, who are 9 and 10, to Vin Diesel's The Pacifier. Fatherhood dropped in on him after he married his third wife, Fiona, whom he met during a trip to Dublin, where she was the business manager of a recording studio. They conducted a long-distance romance over five years before getting hitched (they planned to celebrate their anniversary by attending a Bob Dylan/Merle Haggard concert in Chicago). She and her son moved to Nashville. The Prines spend as much time as they can on the old sod, in a small cottage they bought on Ireland's west coast, near Galway. "It all happened at a great time," Prine said. "I was 49 when the first kid came along. It just, like, keeps me off the street, that's for sure. It also makes it legitimate for me to go to toy stores. Used to be, I could never buy anything because I had no one to buy anything for. "I don't know if I would have appreciated it as much in another time of my life. The stuff I thought was interesting and all the stuff I did, all the partying I did -- I would have hated to miss it being with my kids. It used to be all I'd do was sleep late, walk around and think about ideas for songs. Now, I've got a family, a wife, a whole thing going on. I have to put aside time to write." The originals on Fair & Square, Prine's first album of new material in nearly a decade (released April 26 on Oh Boy), were written over a period of five years. That's quite a different pace from early in his career, when he turned out four albums in a little more than four years for Atlantic, having signed to deliver an impossible ten in ten. ("They were looking for publishing," he says. "Whether anyone was gonna become a James Taylor or not, they were getting in on it somehow.") If the early songs that stopped people in their seats with their quick-cutting insight and genius turns of phrase had a certain airtight quality, his new efforts have a more relaxed, ruminative quality. On the sunset-streaked "Taking A Walk", which boasts radiant harmony vocals by Mindy Smith and Pat McLaughlin, and the infectious, easy-rolling opener, "Glory Of True Love", Prine brings a graceful, dyed-in-the-bone wisdom to themes of love, loss and dislocation. There's resignation in the songs (which include a cover of Texas legend Blaze Foley's "Clay Pigeons"), but no small amount of resolve: "Radio's on/Windows rolled up/And my mind's rolled down," he sings on "Long Monday", written with one of his longtime cronies, Keith Sykes. "Headlights shining/Like silver moons/Rollin' on the ground." Prine, who overcame his initial disinclination to co-write songs to become the most openly collaborative of the great singer-songwriters -- he's shared credits with everyone from Goodman and John Mellencamp to Bobby Bare and Lee Clayton to a stable of regulars including Sykes, McLaughlin and Roger Cooke -- produced Fair & Square himself, along with engineer Gary Paczosa. Though he has a co-producing credit on other Oh Boy releases, he considers this his first real effort at the helm. Working with his regular accompanists, guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques, and old hands including Phil Parlapiano on accordion, organ and piano and Dan Dugmore on steel guitar, Prine arrives at such a natural, spacious, dare we say organic sound, you wish he had gotten serious as a producer before. As a singer, Prine sounds freer and more relaxed than ever. Whereas the young John, beholden as he was to folk tradition, could sound a bit stiff and sober even when cracking wise, the older John has grown into a living-room kind of voice, where there are all kinds of crannies for his listeners to find comfort. It wasn't just living that altered his pipes. An uncommon form of cancer had a say in it as well. In 1998, after he had started making In Spite Of Ourselves, an offbeat series of country covers featuring duets with the likes of Iris DeMent, Melba Montgomery and Trisha Yearwood, he found out that the bothersome lump on his neck that doctors had dismissed as nothing was in fact something. Having seen Goodman stave off leukemia for years longer than anyone said he could (he died in 1984), Prine wasn't scared by the disease, but he was unsettled by the fact that no two physicians could agree on what to do about it. He was saved from manic doubt by an out-of-the-blue call from Knox Phillips, who had produced Prine's 1979 album Pink Cadillac with his brother Jerry and famous father Sam. Having heard through the grapevine about Prine's condition and his frustrating trials, he directed him to a health center in Houston where he'd had his own neck cancer successfully treated. Prine was resistant, but a threatening call from Sam sealed the deal, and saved his life. The treatments transformed Prine physically. He lost a chunk of real estate between his head and shoulder and had his bite refashioned. He also has put on a bunch of weight. But if someone else in the same situation might dwell on the down side, or wear a turtleneck ("That's just not John," says Bunetta), Prine plays up the positives. "I'm sure part of it is being grateful for being able to do it at all, but a lot of it was, 'Jeez, I have this new voice,'" he says. "My voice dropped as a result of the treatments, and it seemed friendlier to me than ever; it seemed like an extension of my conversational voice. Maybe I always had it and didn't know it, because I know I used to talk way down here, and then I'd go to sing and I'd sing the song where I wrote it, I'd sing it way up here, and through my nose on top of that. "Anyway, I had to change the key on all the songs because of my new voice, which turned out to be a real gift for me. The old songs became new to me again. If I had known all I had to do was change the key, I woulda done that years ago. From day one since I started performing again, it's never been the same for me onstage. To have that sack full of songs and to discover them again -- I couldn't ask for anything better." Prine, who re-recorded his early classics for his 2000 album Souvenirs -- not only to test-drive his new voice, which sometimes slurs a bit, but also to own masters of the songs -- enjoys telling of how he laughed off his doctors' offer to put a shield around his vocal cords during radiation treatments. "I said if I could talk, I could sing, because that's all I could do in the first place. I play the guitar and talk, and talk a little faster, and hold a note at the end of the line, and I said that basically became my singing voice. My definition of singing is how spirited it is, how believable, not whether or not you can hit the note." As much as he runs down his vocal talents, having fallen so short of his childhood desires to croon like Jim Reeves, he knows, like so many other craggy-voiced songwriters Bob Dylan gave license to trill, that the power of his personal expression transcends whatever stylistic i's he can't dot or t's he can't cross. Opposite a full-bodied weeping willow such as Melba Montgomery, his instrument can seem a bit twiggish, but when he's in his own backyard, in his element, he's an untouchable. Covers of his songs are many and varied, including Bonnie Raitt's "Angel From Montgomery", Bette Midler's "Hello In There", Johnny Cash's "Unwed Fathers", the Everly Brothers' "Paradise", Norah Jones' "That's The Way That The World Goes 'Round", and let's not forget Swamp Dogg's "Sam Stone". But most of his interpreters play things too straight up, if not with too much sentimentality (something Prine himself has been accused of), to serve his rascally sensibility and oblique poetry. Kris Kristofferson, one of Prine's early champions, marvels over the elusiveness of lines like, "As soon as I passed through the moonlight/She hopped into some foreign sports car" (from "The Great Compromise"). Joe Ely, who came under Prine's influence while with the original incarnation of the Flatlanders, admires his craft. "It's one thing to write lyrics and another to have the whole melody and the way you sing it work with the song," Ely observes. "When John finishes a song, he knows how to present it. He figures it out while he's putting it together. There are very few people who can do that." Few pop artists are as thoroughly well-liked as Prine is -- not only by his fans, many of whom, after he and Bunetta started Oh Boy as a mail-order business, sent in money for albums Prine hadn't even started; not only by fellow artists, who, in addition to covering his songs, appearing on his albums and citing him in interviews, have put his name into more than a dozen of their own tunes (including the moody Minnesota trio Low's "John Prine"); not only by poet laureate Ted Kooser, who preambled his recent onstage interview with Prine at the Library of Congress by comparing him to short story master Raymond Carver for making "monuments" of ordinary lives; but also, just possibly, by the large gallery of characters in his compositions. I'm referring to Donald and Lydia and Iron Ore Betty, to Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard and Linda who went to Mars, to Forbidden Jimmy, who "got a mighty sore tooth from biting too many dimes in a telephone booth," to Dear Abby, who showed up in a novelty tune named after her -- one that inspired a fan to actually write to her pretending to be the guy in the song whose stomach made noises whenever he kissed. Sabu is in there, too, and so is Jesus. To their eternal gratitude, Prine has never abandoned them, stretching his concerts to two and a half hours so he can play the old songs along with the new. Prine seems always to have made people happy. "I was such a good kid, childless couples used to borrow me," he said, recalling his formative years in Maywood, an economically mixed western suburb of Chicago. "They'd loan me out for a night. You could just sit me somewhere and I'd be there an hour later when you came back. Though I ended up having a little brother, I was supposed to have been the baby. I had two older brothers and I could do no wrong whatsoever. Everybody picked me up when they came in the door and swang me around. It was a really great childhood." His father, a tool and die man and union head who left Kentucky to get away from the coal mines, had a big collection of country 78s and "loved to go to honky-tonks and play the jukebox. He'd take us with him to hillbilly bars, set me up, order an orange pop for me, go play the jukebox and give me money for the pinball machine." Prine's maternal grandfather played guitar with Merle Travis. Young John took a liking to Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and moved on to other country and bluegrass and honky-tonk stylists from there. Taking a page, and informal lessons, from his older brother Dave, a fiddler who was featured on his early albums, he hung around the Old Town School of Folk Music. He began learning to play songs at 14, when "I was trying to impress a girl." One of them was "Twist And Shout". The other was one of his own songs, which he remembers as "a Hank Williams throwaway." He found it easier to play his own stuff than learn somebody else's. Two other originals from that early period, "Sour Grapes" and "The Frying Pan", ended up on his second album, Diamonds In The Rough. He lost interest in music for a while. But having been pressed into playing tunes for his mates in the Army -- drafted out of high school at 17, he was stationed in Germany at the height of Vietnam -- he began making up songs to amuse himself during his rounds as a mail carrier, a job he held for six years in Maywood. No one knew about his commitment to songwriting -- not his wife, Ann Carol, whom he'd married in 1966, not his brothers, not his parents. His announced his talents in 1969 at a club near the Old Town called the Fifth Peg, having scored a job auditioning with three originals: "Sam Stone", about a war veteran's drug troubles; "Hello In There", a tearful ballad about neglected old people; and "Paradise," which depicted the ravaging of his father's hometown in Kentucky by strip miners. "I wrote it to show I could write stuff my father knew about," he said. Movie critic Roger Ebert, who also did some music writing back then, was among the first to call attention to Prine after catching him in October 1970. Legend (with help from Prine) has rewritten the details a bit: Ebert didn't walk out on a movie to get some popcorn and overhear people talking about this guy from Maywood singing and so headed over to the Fifth Peg. He had heard about Prine -- and, he conjectured recently, probably had seen him -- before. And the headline over Ebert's column in the Sun-Times wasn't the Variety-worthy "Singing Mailman Delivers the Message," but rather the awkward "Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words." "He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight," wrote Ebert. "He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you." In the summer of 1971, Prine won over Kristofferson, who was riding high as one of the new leaders of the new country, after Goodman talked him into seeing Prine's act at the Earl of Old Town. Goodman was opening for Kristofferson at the Quiet Knight, where he played one of Prine's songs. By the time Kristofferson and Goodman made it to the Earl -- along with the unlikely third wheel of Paul Anka, who was singing Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night" as part of his nightclub act at the Empire Room -- everyone had gone, chairs were on tables, and Prine was asleep in a booth. Or, as Prine recalls, under it. Kristofferson asked Prine to sing, and heard seven songs. He then asked him to sing them all again and add some others. "If he was nervous, it didn't show," Kristofferson said recently via e mail. "His performance was as natural as breathing. And his songs simply blew us away." The songs carried Prine to New York, where Kristofferson got him and Goodman (who was about to release his first album on Buddha) onto his gig at the Bitter End. Prine played the late set, for the door. Legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who had helped launch the careers of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, heard Prine and signed him. Later that year, Atlantic released Prine's self-titled debut, with liner notes by Kristofferson and a thank you to Anka (who attempted to become Prine's manager). The new "next Dylan" was born. On the cover of the album, which was recorded in Memphis, Prine is sitting on a bale of hay, looking like anything but a Chicago guy. "I thought they coulda had me on a bus or something," he said. "I had never sat on a bale of hay in my life." The photographer assured him he was shooting a close-up and using the hay only as "an interesting pattern to put behind my face." In the end, Prine cottoned to the image. "Maybe he saw the hick inside me trying to get out." Produced by Arif Mardin, John Prine certainly was marked by the rural inflections and sensibility passed down by his parents. Would the songs -- emotional knife-twisters such as "Hello In There" and larkish lifestyle commentaries such as "Spanish Pipedream", in which a topless dancer offers "level-headed" advice to "Blow up your TV, throw away your paper/Go to the country, build you a home" -- have caused such a stir if they weren't coming from a kid of 24 who didn't have any right to be passing on such wisdom? "Hey, I just figured I knew about what I was writing about, but that doesn't make me smart," said Prine. "To be able to have those insights about people, that doesn't mean you have any answers. All you're able to do is give the police a good description of the guy who robbed the place. You might even tell a few courts about them, but that doesn't mean you can tell them where he lives or why he did it. "In certain ways, I only wrote those songs because I was as innocent as I was about the world. But I could see these things going on and they stuck with me evidently, or I couldn't have written them down and they couldn't have touched nerves the way they did. "But, I don't know, it was only after that that I was shown the world. All of a sudden, I was able to travel all over and meet all different people. After all these years of doing that, I wasn't so sure that I didn't like the world that I started out with better than the one I saw after years and years." Prine was perfectly happy working with Mardin, who also produced Diamonds In The Rough and Sweet Revenge, his second and third albums. "Truly, I think he was a genius as a producer," Prine says. "He had never heard of a steel guitar before he worked with me. And the day we brought Leo LeBlanc in the studio, Arif sat there for a good two hours, just asking Leo to play standards and stuff, and he couldn't get over how it reminded him of string arrangements. I thought we were rolling along fine." But for his fourth album, 1975's Common Sense, Prine picked as his producer Steve Cropper, famed Stax and Booker T & the MGs guitarist, "out of the air, thinking you were supposed to try different things with different producers. I didn't know there'd been all this bad blood between him and Atlantic, so Atlantic took it as a slap in the face." Recorded in Memphis and Los Angeles, Common Sense made no secret of its commercial designs. It had a big sound, Memphis horns, and backup vocals by an L.A. posse of Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. But for its professional polish, it was a rebellious effort in signaling Prine's desire to go off in a different direction. As you might gather from his description of the album's title cut in his notes to Rhino's Prine anthology, Great Days, he wasn't in the brightest of spirits: "It's a song about the American dream only existing in the hearts and minds of immigrants until they live here long enough for democracy to make them cold, cynical and indifferent, like all us native Americans." The obscure bent of tunes such as "Saddle In The Rain", in which he "dreamed they locked God up/Down in my basement/And he waited there for me/To have this accident/So he could drink my wine/And eat me like a sacrament," didn't help sell the album. After Common Sense tanked at the box office, it made sense for Prine to move on. "In the short time I was there, Atlantic really changed from what it was when I was a record buyer," Prine laments. "That's who I thought I was signing with when Wexler signed me. Jerry retired about three years after I was there, and then they signed Led Zeppelin, and then they signed the Stones, and Ahmet [Ertegun, the label's founder] just started traveling the world, and between Zeppelin and the Stones, that was it. "Jerry had an idea of why he was signing me, and why he started a Nashville label. There was something stirring with this kind of music and he wanted to pursue it. With Jerry gone, I went to Ahmet and asked him if he had any ideas of about what he'd like me to do after four records. I said I don't feel like anyone knows or cares what I'm doing here; they just kept giving me money to make records. I just felt lost." Feeling constricted as a songwriter, he made a conscious decision to go beyond the story-songs that were his bread and butter. "I thought if every time I do an album, I come up with twelve new characters, sooner or later I'll have like an entire city, you know, of people," he said with a laugh. "They came so easy for me, they were gonna get trite. So I tried to write anything but, just to stretch out." With his marriage headed for an end -- his wife reportedly wasn't happy about her life as a musician's better half -- he headed to Nashville. Newly signed to Asylum, he hooked up with Cowboy Jack Clement, the famed producer, studio founder and label head. Once a cog in the Sun Records machine, Clement spent the summer of '77 producing Prine and working on his own first album. He completed that debut, All I Want To Do In Life (which didn't yield a sequel until last year's Guess Things Happen That Way), but the songs he recorded with Prine remained unfinished. "We had some great music, and we had some great tapes," Prine said. "But we didn't have a record." "John is one of my favorite people, and it was a productive time for him," recalls Clement. "We did a lot of experimenting and messing around, him and me playing guitars, which I thought was the direction to pursue. But he had things going on. We'd start working on a song and he'd start singing something else. He had a crush on the bass player, Rachel [Peer], who he married later. That was part of the distraction, but there were other things, too." Forced to start over at ground zero, a grueling prospect for any artist in any field, Prine turned to Goodman for help back in Chicago. "He said, 'Just show up with your guitar and sing the songs however you want to sing them,'" Prine relates. "'I'll surround you with musicians and you'll have a beautiful record.'" Which is what a lot of people called Bruised Orange, the only album he has recorded in the Windy City. Streaked with whimsy and lifted by hometown energy, it boasted instantly appealing tunes such as "That's The Way That The World Goes 'Round" and "Fish And Whistle". It had Corky Siegel playing harmonica and a turn by the great Jethro Burns on mandolin; it had a song co-written by Phil Spector; it had strings and voices and photos by Victor Skrebneski. What it didn't have was what Prine was hearing in his head. "It was really far from what Cowboy and I were doing," he admits. "I thought I'd made this record once already, and I couldn't find it in me to go back and make it again." For better or worse, Goodman prodded him forward. "It wasn't a time period I liked being around Steve. He was like Edward G. Robinson as your producer. He wouldn't mind if I argued everyday, but I didn't have it in me. We made a deal we'd go in and do this, though, so I listened to him." When it came time to go on the road, Prine decided to forgo the usual suspects in putting together a band. With the help of guitarist John Burns, Jethro's talented son, he rounded up other reliables from the Chicago scene, including keyboardist and harpist Howard Levy and drummer Angie Varias. When they hit the road, they hit it hard. "John was into this band," Varias remembers. "He was playing with new enthusiasm. He wanted to do Elvis songs and old Johnny Cash and rockabilly and rootsy stuff. He couldn't get enough of that music." "When Asylum asked for another record," says Prine, "I said, well, I'm gonna give them a record. I'll give them the record I was gonna make before I made Bruised Orange. And so I wrote some songs for it and we ended up going over to Memphis to work at Sam's place with Knox and Jerry Phillips. We got an apartment not far from there, Johnny Burns and all the guys, and we recorded six nights a week. We'd go in at six at night and leave at six in the morning. Once Sam heard what was going on, he'd be in there at 4 a.m., his devil eyes flashing." "We did that for I don't know how long -- we ended up with something like 500 hours of tape -- and took the best of what we had, and Asylum just about had a heart attack. They called me out to L.A. and one of the heads there said, 'John, what you've got here is not what I think you want.' This is a problem. He tells me what I want and it's not on that tape. "I said, well, that's what I want. And I said, that's expensive noise on there. We did a lot of things to get the noise on those tapes. At the time, Steely Dan and the Eagles were the kinds of records out there, and the sounds were highly digital. That was the popular sound for the records that sold, and this was not that at all." Pink Cadillac will forever be another commercial blip on Prine's resume -- a cousin to those "uncharacteristic" departures Neil Young got sued by his label for making. Artistically, though, it was a high point in Prine's career. Scrapping the singer-songwriter aesthetic for a raw bar-band approach, he heated up old tunes such as "Baby Let's Play House", bit off as much of Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You" as he could chew, poured his rakish car collector's soul into his own "Automobile", and spared no hope on the bleak and biting "Down By The Side Of The Road". The sound of Pink Cadillac was jarring, the playing loose and jagged, the attitude one of going for broke. It shouldn't have come as any surprise that it wouldn't be well-received at Asylum, where "everyone in the office dressed like the Cars, with skinny ties and shiny suits," Varias says. What do you do when your best work is brushed aside by a label to which you're under contract to deliver another record? "I just more or less picked stuff I didn't record on Pink Cadillac, went down to Muscle Shoals, recorded it, gave it to 'em and left," Prine summarizes. "That was the end of my major-label days." His appropriate parting lyric: "Silence is golden/'Til it screams/Right through your bones." Nursing his wounds back in Nashville, Prine wasn't worried about the future. If he kept on as a performer -- as opposed to, say, becoming a fisherman, which he reportedly had considered at one point -- he'd have no trouble supporting himself. "I knew I could go out and play till I was 140 if I wanted to," he says, "just me and my Martin, playing John Prine songs, and make a good living doing it." Fans being fans, though, they like to have keepsakes from their favorites. Bunetta had had some success starting a mail-order label for Goodman. He and Prine decided to have a go at starting one up for him. Named after the Buddy Holly song ("All of my life, I've been waitin'/Tonight there'll be no hesitatin'/Oh boy!"), with a logo that borrowed the curl from the cherubic figurehead for the old Big Boy burger chain, Oh Boy started out with modest aims. Prine's first release was a red vinyl 45 of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Silver Bells". Encouraged by the holiday single's small but successful run, he followed it in 1984 with the full-length Aimless Love, which included "The Oldest Baby In The World" and "People Puttin' People Down", and then 1986's bluegrass-oriented German Afternoons, Clement's favorite Prine album, which included "Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness" and "I Just Want To Dance With You". As Oh Boy grew, its mail-order sales increasingly gave way to store sales. Prine and Bunetta had on their hands a trailblazer for the artist-run indie labels. But amidst Oh Boy's strong start -- Prine scored his first Grammy nomination for German Afternoons and his second for the 1988 release John Prine Live -- he was going through another divorce and was again entertaining thoughts of quitting the business. He had a chance to do so when Sony made an offer to acquire Oh Boy. "I turned it down because I didn't want to go mess with all that stuff," he says. "I didn't want to be around it. Still today, if I gotta go visit somebody or take a meeting in a building that houses a major label...that feeling just crawls all over me." Playing an inspired game of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," in terms of going after pop's brass ring, he got a Heartbreaker, bassist Howie Epstein, to produce his next album, 1991's The Missing Years. An all-star affair with a crisp state-of-the-art sound, it featured most of the Heartbreakers, with leader Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Everly on background vocals. How do you spell sweet revenge? The Missing Years sold nearly a quarter of a million copies -- five times Prine's previous best efforts -- and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. How could it not, with rhyming phrases like "Exactly-odo" and "Quasimodo" (on "The Sins Of Memphisto") and pearls of plainspoken philosophy like "I tell you funny stories/Why can't you treat me nice" (on "Great Rain")? The ascension of John Prine continued. Having co-written one of the tunes on The Missing Years with John Mellencamp, he took a small role in Mellencamp's 1992 film Falling From Grace. (A few years later, he was Billy Bob Thornton's "Zen hillbilly" brother in Thornton's unreleasable Daddy And Them.) Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, an underrated Epstein production even if it did draw another Grammy nomination, came out in 1995, delivering "Lake Marie" and the always applicable "Quit Hollerin' At Me". Prine's success has translated into success for others. As talent scout at Oh Boy -- the guy who listens to the tapes and CDs that get sent in, mainly while he's on tour driving a rental car -- he has signed the sharp-witted Todd Snider (following Snider's mid-'90s major-label stint) and the odd-witted Dan Reeder (an American living in Germany who paints doors for a living). Life is good for Prine, and one can assume it will get only better with the release of Fair & Square. There is, however, a small matter of politics intruding upon his contentment. More than three decades after needling the Reader's Digest crowd with "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore", he is drawing negative feedback for Bush-bashing lyrics on the new album's fifth track, "Some Humans Ain't Human". The song begins as a general indictment of "jealousy and stupidity" and abruptly shifts into higher critical gear. "Have you ever noticed/When you're feeling good," Prine says, speaking the words, "There's always a pigeon/That'll come shit on your hood/Or you're feeling your freedom/And the world's off your back/Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq." The gutsy payoff: "Some humans ain't human/Some people ain't kind/They lie through their teeth/With their head up their behind." "I've been performing the song since the day I wrote it," Prine says. "I wrote it in Ireland last August. Two days after that, I came back to the U.S. and started to perform it, in Washington, D.C. I've been getting mail and comments from people after the shows, really strange stuff. "When you get letters that say I've been listening to your music for 35 years and that song would offend them, I wonder what they thought I was singing about in my other songs. If nothing else, I'm glad I wrote it because it seems the way the climate is, if you're not saying anything, you're showing support for the administration. "It's a more blatant comment than I ordinarily would make," he continues. "But I was really mad at the Bush administration. I was trying to write something lighter, but they made me lose my sense of humor. Sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade." Back in those flaky 1970s, commenting on Prine's efforts as a "protest singer," the Chicago Today newspaper waxed approvingly over his "bizarre occupation in this time of no commitment from pop musicians." Prine isn't alone in the new century in rallying people to the cause. But in ways both goofy and sober, he's at the head of the class in showing us how it's done. ND contributing editor Lloyd Sachs is a pop and jazz writer based in Chicago, where he is a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times.