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John Prine: One of America’s Greatest Songwriters

John Prine’s empathy for overlooked quiet pain and struggles of those around him elevated his deceivingly simple lyrics to stunningly powerful poetry and provided hope. I wrote this piece in 1982, and he was gracious enough to share a beer and a cigarette during our brief interview after the concert.

John Prine’s poignancy best part of his show

Concert Review
By David A. Simpson

Strolling about the stage in snug black pants and a cowboy hat cocked jauntily atop his head, John Prine delivered a good deal of highly charged, country-style rock ‘n’ roll at his concert aboard the riverboat President the other night.

But the best moments came when Prine traded his electric guitar for an amplified acoustic one, slowed his pace, and sang such melancholy treasures as “Sam Stone” and “Six O’Clock News.” While his voice is unremarkable – some would say mediocre – many of Prine’s lyrics are masterful.

Perhaps the most touching of his songs on this occasion was “Hello in There,” a tender, insightful portrait of an older couple struggling with loneliness and the disquieting reflections that come from reviewing a life gone by. The song is a minor classic and deserves a permanent spot in the tapestry of American folk artistry.

Apparently worried about creating too serious a mood, Prine followed his most soulful songs with such upbeat numbers as “Whistlin’ and Fishin’” and “Illegal Smile,” a cheerful tune about the effects of maijuana.

He got unsolicited help from the receptive audience on several numbers, including “Dear Abby,” when his fans joined in the chorus of this light-hearted take-off on the nationally syndicated columnist.

Joining Prine during most of the concert was Phillip Donnelly, a guitarist whose obvious talent kept some of the star’s rock songs from dragging. Picking intricate riffs with speed and confidence, Donnelly overshadowed the third musician on stage, bass guitarist Rachel Peer.

Peer, who is to become Prine’s wife in October, displayed no particular expertise on the bass, but she did improve several of the songs by singing high harmony in a pleasant voice. The future bride and groom teamed up to sing an appealing duet, “Falling in Love With You.”

Prine, whose earliest and most successful albums contained only a few examples of this type of country rock that dominated his concert Thursday night, said this change in emphasis reflects an improvement in his personal life.

In a brief interview, he said he is no longer as reflective or sad as he once was, and prefers not to dwell exclusively on the “optimistically pessimistic” songs which characterized his earlier music. “I guess I need to rock out every so often now,” he said.

But while Prine is effective as a country-rock performer, the medium is not one in which his real talent – his songwriting genius – can be adequately displayed. The reflective, poetic stream which runs through his earlier ballads is simply not the stuff of country rock. As Prine’s music gets louder and faster-paced, it loses its ability to inspire, to stir the soul.

That is not to say he must play at a funereal pace to be good. His first encore, “Paradise,” is a good example. A fast-moving song that first appears to be joyful, it is a touching account of how a part of Western Kentucky – home of Prine’s family – was exploited and ruined by a coal company.

Prine has an uncanny ability to use simple language and music to create compassion for those he finds suffering or trapped in a hostile environment. It would be a pity for him to neglect this talent in favor of his more upbeat, but often hollow, country rock.


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