One of America's greatest songwriters, John Prine, died on April 7, from the coronavirus.
I had the privilege of interviewing him back in 2009. He was coming to perform in Phoenix at the Dodge Theater (which is now Arizona Federal Theatre), not to promote anything but to sing and perform for the people, something he clearly loved. As his brilliant late-career albums proved, he was far from being a buried treasure.
Not everything from our interview made it into my eventual piece. Here's the rest: Prine talking about spinning stages, songwriting partners, working with Billy Bob Thornton, and major record label deals.
On consistently playing Phoenix, unlike many other touring acts that skipped over the city in those days:
I wouldn’t skip Phoenix. I love coming here. It’s a great little town. It’s got everything.
On playing the spinning stage at the Celebrity Theatre with the spinning stage, and whether he'd had any bad experiences playing in the round:
I like the Celebrity. Usually, I don’t like playing in the round. I feel like a birthday cake.
I played a place in Houston that’s made more for theater, so they had monitors. But if you went past the monitors, they didn’t move, but the stage did. I tried to tell the guy that owned the place that it was like playing on the back of a truck in a parade. Every two blocks, I get to hear myself, and he just looked at me like I was crazy.
I just pretended I was somewhere else. I picked a previous concert from another year and did that (laughs).
On touring without a new album and testing out new songs on the road:
You'll see if a song feels to you that it needs work or if the bridge is in the right place, like crossing the river at the right time. I know when I got something. I know when I‘ve got a John Prine song.
I also know when I got something different for the crowd that comes to hear me. I got an idea of whether they're gonna like that. Sometimes, you’ve gotta be a little careful and tell them a story to get them into it. (laughs) And sometimes, a new song won’t go over so good live. When you get it in the studio, it will be one of the better songs on the record.
On recording other people’s material on in-between albums like In Spite of Ourselves:
These are songs I’ve been singing more or less to myself over the years. I recorded the album Standard Songs For Average People with Mac Wiseman because they were songs I wanted to hear Mac sing. He was really happy to be asked to sing those standards because all people want to hear him sing is bluegrass. And he’s a big fan of pop music. He cut his teeth on Bing Crosby, and I can tell by his voice that he’s a crooner. I’m not, but I’ve got my own record company (Oh Boy Records), so I can do what I want.
That’s why I do those kinds of records in-between my regular records. I figure, why have a record company if you can’t make records the kind that you want? And I was never any good at outguessing the public anyway. Why should I make money for anybody but myself?
On the evolution of record labels and his Oh Boy imprint:
I was there when it all changed. That was part of the reason I started Oh Boy. When I was signed to Atlantic, I had a 10-record deal. I was supposed to deliver two albums a year of fresh material. Well, that all sounded great to me when I was a mailman. I was happy to be on that label. Jerry Wexler was hands-on. He put me in the studio with producer Arif Mardin, and Wexler would be listening to stuff as it went along. I didn’t feel that (attention) after he left. So they let me out of my contract.
I never made a dime for them, but it cost me. I owed them seven albums, so I had to pay up. I stayed within the Warners Group. Asylum signed me, and after that, I've been independent ever since. I started my label in ’84, and people told me I was committing suicide. I know I have an audience, and I want to go directly to them. Then whatever I get is cream on the top.
On "In Spite of Ourselves," a 2002 song he wrote for the movie Daddy and Them:
Billy Bob Thornton asked me to write that, but I wrote it in less time than it takes me to sing it. (laughs) Luckily, it was a song I wanted to sing myself.
On modern country music, where everybody's got a job and a truck:
It all goes back to who’s running the record companies when the corporate guys took over. They figured out a way to make hits that had nothing to do with music: Get someone who looks good on a video and teach him to sing. And get people to write songs for him that sound like pop or rock 'n' roll songs.
On writing with pop heavyweights like Roger Cook:
Roger’s written hundreds of songs, but you’ll never see his name alone on a song. He wrote all that stuff with Roger Greenway like “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” It was just like a Lennon and McCartney arrangement.
Roger’s still that way today. He’ll come to me with a song that just needs another verse and a bridge and say, “I can't do anything with this.” If I like a song, I can get a real clear picture of what it needs. If something is already there, and just not some coloring or shading, I like to do that. And we also have stuff we start from scratch. But it’s nothing I look at as a job because he’s such a good buddy. We just come to a table with, “Uhh, you got any ideas?” I know guys that just like to write from titles. Then if you get excited within the first half-hour, you might have something, but if it gets to be too much of a grind, I’d just rather get a hot dog.
On unfinished ideas for songs:
I’ve had this idea for a song for 25 years trying to write a song about the Vulcan in Birmingham, Alabama. There’s this big statue overlooking the city. I read the history of it. They used it for advertising. They put overalls on him. He’s a Greek god. They put a real light on the statue’s torch, and if there was a traffic fatality, the light would turn red. And I thought, "Can you imagine a mother sitting up, looking out of her picture window, seeing that light turn red, and wondering if it was her son?"
A little movie starts going in my head. It’s not the kind of song I want to bring to the table with somebody else, so I’m thinking now I’ve got two songs going. And that’s what’s stopping me. It’s called "The Iron Man From Birmingham." It’s a historical narrative like "Sink the Bismarck."
On where he first played "Angel from Montgomery" live:
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Back in Chicago. I wrote that in ’69. Bonnie Koloc was the first to record it.
On political songs:
I never liked going to rallies. I don’t like big groups of people. Maybe that’s why I don’t play arenas. There’s just something wrong when it gets to a certain amount of people. If something bugs me for a while, there’s no separation to me from the political and the way you live your life. If something rubs you the wrong way, you say something about it.
When I'd try to say it with humor, it seems to work better, especially if you’re gonna write the song for everybody. There’s no reason to piss off a whole group of people. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the converted, and usually, stuff gets dated real fast.