Book Review: John Prine - In Spite of Himself
When author Eddie Huffman was approached about contributing a book to “The American Music Series” published by University of Texas Press, he thought, “Who can I listen to as much as I’d have to for a book and not get sick of it?”
That was in 2012, and the invitation led to a three-year writing adventure resulting in the recently published John Prine - In Spite of Himself.
Huffman was a student majoring in history and English at UNC-Chapel Hill in the early '80s when he began listening to the music of John Prine, and as a journalist in 1988 he had the opportunity to interview Prine for an article. It was a great conversation, and Huffman found he had a lot in common with the singer with their similar backgrounds and both being one of three brothers.
But when Huffman reached out to Prine’s management to see about talking with Prine about the new book, they declined to cooperate. Prine’s people were in the process of creating a documentary and they viewed this book as “competition.” After repeated failed attempts to make contact, Huffman did what most good newspaper reporters do when they can’t go right to the source: he dug deeper into other sources.
Huffman spent countless hours searching for everything written by or about Prine, listening repeatedly to his recordings, and viewing videos recorded through the decades. He journeyed to Prine’s childhood hometown- the Chicago suburb Maywood, Ill.- and visited Muhlenburg County, Ky., the birthplace of Prine’s parents and the inspiration for his song, “Paradise.” (This musically fertile county gave birth to a slew of performers, including the Everly Brothers). Huffman absorbed the feel of the area and studied Prine geneology.
In his attempt to be as thorough and accurate as possible, Huffman recruited archivists and musicians to advise him while checking historical and musical facts. Songwriter Sam Frazier helped analyze songs and enabled Huffman to scatter technical chord and guitar-playing references amid descriptions of the music.
This is a much different book than it would have been had Prine himself collaborated. Instead of a first-person account, the reader views Prine as reflected in the eyes of others and through the effects he had upon the lives of those with whom his own life intersected.
Huffman’s admiration is obvious, but he doesn’t let this stop him from describing the misses as well as the hits, or from venturing into parts of Prine’s life that paint him as less than a saint. He makes it clear that Prine’s fame is not just the result of his talent, but is partially due to experiences where he was in the right place a the right time. Prine and Huffman would both be willing to admit that neither Prine’s singing or guitar playing are outstanding, but that his legacy rests more on his creativeness and musical story-telling.
He has never been a “superstar” but instead is a musician’s musician, shunning the trappings of celebrity and refusing to play the music industry’s fame game while garnering Grammys, a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Americana Music Association, and being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was described early in his career as “the New Dylan” -- and Bob Dylan himself is one of Prine’s fans.
The book’s subtitle, “In Spite of Himself.” is a nod to the song “In Spite of Ourselves” which Prine recorded with Iris Dement in 1999; the song’s title is also the title of the album which is a collection of break-up song duets between Prine and a parade of female singers including Melba Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood, Emmy Lou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Prine’s third and current wife, Fiona.
“In spite of himself” would also seem to refer to a modest lack of ambition, instances in Prine’s life where he made poor choices that could have crippled his career, and to the fact that he has kept performing in spite of two battles with cancer, first in his throat, then in a lung.
Prine fanatics may find this book somewhat redundant to what they have been reading in liner notes and magazines for years. But for readers who are less knowledgeable about Prine and just interested in his genre of music and similar artists, this book provides behind-the-scenes history of the music industry and engaging anecdotes about musicians, writers and actors, some with whom Prine only rubbed shoulders, and others with whom he built life-long friendships.
Whether this volume is regarded as a 200-page annotated discography or an intensively-researched biography, Huffman’s writing should remain as a valuable resource for future John Prine biographers and music historians.
More information about John Prine - In Spite of Himself can be found at the site for University of Texas Press. The American Music Series also includes books about Los Lobos, Vic Chesnutt, The Flatlanders, Merle Haggard, Ryan Adams and Dwight Yoakam. Eddie Huffman's blog is found at huffmaneddie.com.