Prophet Ear

Ex-Green on Red mainstay Chuck Prophet continues his solo metamorphosis with The Hurting Business

Surprisingly, Prophet's signature guitar work is downplayed on The Hurting Business. The album boasts few traditional solos, as the instrument is more a character actor than a featured star in Prophet's wide-screen production. His twangy runs and subtle fills are still there, but they never rise above the songs, married instead to a bed of keyboard sounds, clipped percussion and ghostly background vocals (provided by a studio cast that includes Prophet's wife, singer/pianist Stephanie Finch; bassists Roly Salley and Andy Stoller; American Music Club's Tim Mooney; and longtime drummer Paul Revelli, among others). For Prophet -- a man who made his early reputation as a six-string hot shot -- the lack of over-the-top fretwork isn't a problem.

"My tendency is to turn the guitars down. I hear that sometimes with Lindsey Buckingham or J.J. Cale -- where it sounds like they're just a little bit underneath everything. I don't know why, that's just where my sensibilities lie. It's not that way onstage, though," he says.

Like a number of his fellow roots-rockers, Prophet has long faced an unusual career quandary; all but ignored in his home country, he's maintained a healthy following -- even minor star status -- overseas.

Prophet comes clean: "Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious."
Prophet comes clean: "Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious."
Pills and booze: Prophet (left) and Stuart with Green on Red in 1989
Peter Anderson
Pills and booze: Prophet (left) and Stuart with Green on Red in 1989

"I've got a love/hate relationship with Europe. I mean, I enjoy the success we have over there, but I'm not making this music thinking what someone in Paris would like. I'm making American music," he offers adamantly. "After a while, you start walking around thinking you're crazy because you're not connecting with more Americans. But I think we've sort of turned that around with this record. It's been really gratifying to go to shows and see a lot of people, especially when they speak English."

Since its January release, The Hurting Business helped boost his profile in the U.S., earning the kind of breakthrough hosannas from critics that Prophet supporters have long demanded. Despite that, his sales remain modest, a situation that he feels will be remedied over time.

"The thing about being a solo artist is you tend to get discovered and rediscovered. I think the real challenge is building a nice body of work that people can tap into anywhere along the line."

Prophet's solo catalogue is impressive, running from 1990's country quaint Brother Aldo, through the Cosmic American muse of 1993's Balinese Dancer, continuing with 1995's unassumingly retro Feast of Hearts and up to his previous long player, the suburbia study Homemade Blood.

Unfortunately, the bulk of those titles are hard to find on these shores. Only Business is readily available, and it was originally recorded for the U.K.'s Cooking Vinyl label, only later to be licensed for American release by Hightone.

Still, Prophet's popularity is flowering in many quarters, thanks in part to the cult surrounding Green on Red, one that continues to grow on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1995, China Records released a GOR best-of; in 1997, Germany's Normal issued Archives Vol. 1, a retrospective collecting demos, B-sides and live tracks; in 1998, Edsel U.K. put out the group's last four albums as a pair of special-edition two-fers. And later this year, Restless Records will issue an expanded, remastered version of 1985's alt-country pioneering Gas, Food & Lodging.

Prophet (who hooked up with the originally Tucson-based Green on Red in L.A. in the mid-'80s) looks back at his time with the group fondly. Still, he has no regrets about GOR's 1992 demise.

"You can only drag your adolescence so far into your adulthood. Being in a band is like living with your parents. You gotta move out of the house before people start talking -- 'How old is he? 35 years old and he's still living at home!'" he says, amid gales of laughter. "It's just natural to get out of it. Plus, nobody can break me up. I've tried. Believe me, I tried to break myself up and it's hard to do."

While the arc of his work clearly proves that Prophet has benefited from solitude, he hasn't remained cloistered. On the contrary, he's been an in-demand collaborator on projects ranging from alt-country sweetheart Kelly Willis' 1999 comeback LP What I Deserve (Prophet plays on the album and co-wrote its "Got a Feeling for Ya" with Southern soul composer Dan Penn) as well as hired gun for alterna-rockers Cake and Hollywood songwriter cynic Warren Zevon.

"It's always flattering when the phone rings," says Prophet. "Sometimes you do it just to pay the utility bills and sometimes you get lucky and get to work with somebody like Kelly Willis out of the blue, and it ends up being really rewarding."

Prophet also recently returned to the group fold, with an all-star contingent known as the Raisins in the Sun. Featuring legendary Memphis pianist/producer Jim Dickinson (Replacements, Big Star), knob-turning tandem Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie (Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead), singer/songwriter Jules Shear, and Dylan rhythm foils Harvey Brooks and Winston Watson, the group convened in a Tucson recording studio for two weeks in May 1999, with the notion of writing and recording an album from scratch.

"That was a leap of faith for everybody," says Prophet of the sessions. "I think we were all prepared to go down to Tucson and come away with nothing."

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