Friday, November 20, 2009

458. John Prine- High Country and Western.

Album: John Prine.

Artist: John Prine.

Year: 1971

Genre: Hippiefied American Folk.


  1. Illegal Smile
  2. Spanish Pipedream
  3. Hello In There
  4. Sam Stone
  5. Paradise
  6. Pretty Good
  7. Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore
  8. Far From Me
  9. Angel From Montgomery
  10. Quiet Man
  11. Donald and Lydia
  12. Six O'Clock News
  13. Flashback Blues

Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline reconnected a generation of musicians with traditional American music and allowed them to incorporate the sounds of country and western into their musical landscape. The Eagles, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and others were able to marry their hippie ideals with the traditions of the American heartland and produce albums that some call country rock but I prefer to call Rope and Dope- songs about rural America and how much fun it is to experience while stoned.

Strutting into this genre in 1971 was a guy called John Prine who sounds like a country star with hippie values. His voice is Nashville but his lyrics are San Fransisco. He was happy to mix wild-west nostalgia with surreal imagery and anti war songs and comes away looking like a clever guy who has managed to keep a foot in both camps without alienating either.

The opening track on John Prine helps to set the tone. After a verse that establishes that he has the blues (including a great line about trying to stare down a bowl of oatmeal and losing) he comes in with a chorus telling us that it’s okay because he’ll be spending the evening with an “Illegal Smile.” Despite the fact that marijuana never gets a mention, it’s clear what’s giving Prine a reason to grin. The term Illegal Smile is now a part of hippie drug culture and Mr Prine managed to become a hero of a generation without alienating fans of country music who were happy to embrace his music.

Over the course of the album Prine gives us some protest songs, tragic tales of returned veterans, Dylan-like surrealism, high comedy, subtle sacrilege and some really great tunes. He also delivers a Country standard which you’ve surely heard somewhere. Angel from Montgomery is a fantastic song which I knew well from a dozen different covers but had never heard sung by its writer. It really is a beautiful song and while I probably prefer versions by Bonnie Raitt than its writer that doesn’t take anything away from Prine’s rendition which is just beautiful.

I have to confess that I had a very strange experience with this album. I listened to it for the first time on a Friday morning on my commute to work and enjoyed it a lot. By the time I returned home that night I’d heard it twice more and concluded it was great stuff. The next day I went down with Swine Flu and spent a period of days sick in bed with a high temperature. Throughout that experience I had lines from Prine’s songs repeating themselves over and over again in my head. My fever-addled brain had latched onto snatches of his music and decided that what I needed was to hear them as a permanent looping soundtrack to my global-pandemic induced illness. Most prevalent was the chorus of Pretty Good (“Pretty Good, not bad I can’t complain, but actually everything’s just about the same”) which seemed to be in my head every waking second of every day. By the time the virus has moved on to harass some other poor swine I can’t tell you how sick I was of hearing these lines. Music can definitely be evocative and your response depends on your experiences, so many people still love incredibly bad songs simply because they were playing while they lost their virginity (this is the only reason I can think of why anyone still has a fondness for Supertramp). My enjoyment of this particular song is possibly muted by my experiences but then it’s not fair to lay blame on John Prine just because the extra degrees of heat frying my brain chose to play his music as a soundtrack to my pain. But it speaks well of him that his songs are so catchy that I could sing them after only three listens.

Catchy sums up Prine well. His music is definitely catchy, his lyrics are witty and he’s a lot more fun than a dose of swine flu. I highly recommend him.

Highlight: Angel from Montogomery.

Lowlight: Hmmm. I’m struggling with this. It’s a very consistent album.

Influenced by: Bob.

Influenced: Loudon Wainwright III

Favourite Amazon Review Quote: "Illegal Smile" is a bouncy tune about trying to laugh when everything around you is going wrong.”

-Hmmm. I think you might have missed the point a bit.

So did Prine give you an illegal smile or do you think he should be arrested?

1 comment:

  1. He sounds like someone that I might like to hear.