NASHVILLE — John Prine was an acquired taste in music for the undersigned, but thanks to a mutual friend – Mac Wiseman – we finally got to know the man who created such classics as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise” and “I Just Want To Dance With You.”
Admittedly, we initially heard these by other artists, though the singer-songwriter himself had been earning hosannahs from such knowledgable music men as Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Goodman during the previous 35 years of our chat.
Although John wasn’t one to grant interviews, we felt rather pleased to take up some of his time a week after the release of his collaborative album release, “Standard Songs For Average People” with Wiseman (2007), on Prine’s independent label Oh Boy Records. Our initial thought of their teaming recalled an old adage, opposites do attract.
“Oh sure,” chuckled Prine. “I really admired Mac’s singing, you know. He sings better than ever at 80. He really does. When I close my eyes and hear his voice, it sounds like somebody ice skating smoothly across the pond. So when he expressed interest in doing this record, I didn’t shy away from it. Hey, it was all I could do to keep up with him. Just sitting across the table from Mac every morning to sing with him, well, I wanted to keep on doing it five days a week, every day. That would be a perfect job to me.”
Actually Mac had just turned 82, and Prine 60 last Oct. 10, as they joined forces. Having whipped cancer, John was just happy to be on the scene, and thankful his captivating whiskey baritone still survived. Even in younger days, neither he nor Mac were considered matinee idol types, but their unique talents gained them major feminine followings.
What convinced Oh Boy’s honcho to tackle this task with the Bluegrass Hall of Famer? “There was a seed planted long ago by Jack Clement who mentioned he thought me and Mac might try to do something together sometime. We kind of rolled it around there and I though, ‘Man, I’d love to,’ but didn’t know if Mac knew me from Adam. It turned out that Mac liked some of my stuff, and I sure liked his music.”
Cowboy Jack, who produced Johnny Cash and Charley Pride, guided Mac through his 1969 RCA session, resulting in Mac’s novelty success “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” (written by Cy Coben).
“Do you know David Ferguson?,” asked Prine. “Well, Fergie (who co-produced this album) kind of tricked us. He found the (Kris) Kristofferson song ‘Just The Other Side of Nowhere’ on a record, cut his voice out and invited me and Mac down to the studio, and cut it in a key where it wouldn’t be too rough for either one of us to sing, just to check our voices. Some people’s voices are good and you might think they are like-minded singers who could sing together, but sometimes your voice just doesn’t go with another’s. Somehow ours seems to complement each other.”
Since the co-producer brought that song to the table, who decided on the other 13?
“Originally, Mac and I came up with most of the songs. We just each made a list, regardless of how old or how new the song was, or how well-known or not well-known it was. Then about a month later, we sat at Mac’s house and I think we both had a list of about 15 songs and it turned out seven of the songs were the same on both lists.”
That in itself was amazing. The unlikely duo caress such evergreens as “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” “Saginaw, Michigan” and “Blue Side of Lonesome.” Were any of the final selections especially meaningful to John?
“Yes, the gospel stuff – ‘In the Garden,’ ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ – were the songs that I had heard from my mom and my grandmother, and those I could do with a guitar and vocals. I half way knew them, at least a verse and chorus already. That’s why I suggested them. They were very popular songs, so we both were familiar with them.”
Both knew “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” written by Al Dexter, which was simultaneously a 1943 pop hit, which Al took to #1 and Crosby (with the Andrews Sisters) peaked at #2, until the very first Billboard country chart – Jan. 8, 1944 – had Bing’s version in top spot, and remained #1 through Jan. 29. Come Feb. 5, Dexter’s version became #1 country, too, but then tied two successive weeks at #1 (Feb. 12 and 19) with Crosby’s cut. Next, Louis Jordan’s “Ration Blues” was #1 country Feb. 25 and March 4, but astonishingly Crosby’s version of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” returned to top spot (March 11), tying this time with Al Dexter’s “Rosalita” (years later the Grammy Hall of Fame claimed Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama” version in its annals).
Some reviewers cited the Prine-Wiseman version of Dexter’s tune as a favorite among their collaborations, causing John to recall: “We were both in a playful mood that day (it was recorded), and we’d certainly done a lot of ballads, because we both love ballads, so we were kind of anxious to chop her into bits and do something a little upbeat. Tim O’Brien (guitar), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Mike Bub (bass) were playing on it, and everything just kinda fell in line. I thought it came out pretty good, too. Les Armistead did the harmony on it, sort of kickin’ it up another notch for me. (Incidentally, old pal Cowboy Jack played dobro on the uptempo tune.)”
Another song John listened to as a youngster was included: Bing’s 1932 hit and radio show theme “Where the Blue Of the Night (Meets the Gold Of the Day).” Crosby is credited with co-writing that number, adapted from “The Tit-Willow,” heard in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Mikado.”
Prine pointed out why he insisted on their reviving Tom T. Hall’s “Watermelon Wine,” though Wiseman wasn’t too keen on doing that classic: “I just had to hear Mac sing that line ‘I was sitting in Miami, pouring blended whiskey down’ . . .” Pressed why he wasn’t sold on the song initially, Mac confided, “I wasn’t jittery about doing it, but had misgivings about whether I ould do it justice. Tom T. didn’t leave a damn thing out when he did it. But I think it came off OK.”
Mac also had a liking for the Leon Payne composition “Blue Side of Lonesome,” which became a #1 posthumous hit for Jim Reeves in 1966, explaining, “I knew Leon. He was blind. I met him here . . .” then pointed out that bluesy ballad borrows its melody from the 1890s’ temperance tune “Little Blossom,” which Mac sang a bit of to show us the likeness: “It’s exactly the same.”
Nonetheless Prine proclaimed, “That’s a favorite of mine. I was always partial to Jim Reeves’ version. I spend my summers over in Galway. My wife’s Irish (Fiona Whelan) and we got a little house over there in Ireland. I don’t know how many times me and my friends have closed this pub down singing ‘Blue Side of Lonesome.’ So that was kind of a good record for me.”
That venture with Mac proved a welcome breather for John, not having to write an album’s worth of original songs for a project: “You’re right. It’s always a mixed emotion thing for me, recording new stuff of mine. I’m usually half in love with it and half not, and always wondering about it, whether it’s going to work for somebody else, and is it working for me? But these were all songs I knew and loved. I was just trying my best to tell the story as opposed to like introducing (new songs) . . . so I was just concentrating on telling the story, and trying to sing them from my heart.”
Therefore, owning the label, makes it less stressful recording what he likes rather than that requiring approval from the likes of Atlantic, Asylum and Elektra, his previous labels?
“Well, doing projects like this for one, I don’t have to explain to anybody why or what reason’s behind it. It’s just something I want to do. Period.” Yet, Oh Boy’s also produced other like-minded artists, including Kris Kristofferson, Shawn Camp, Donnie Fritts, Janis Ian and Todd Snider. John said the first single issued by Oh Boy was a Christmas song he recorded, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause.” Thereafter, the Germantown-based company always featured a Christmas tree year around, which Mac also did at his house.
Pop and country artists alike have recorded Prine songs, among them Bette Midler, John Denver, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Lynn Anderson, Gail Davies, Jim & Jesse, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette. He also guested on The Chieftains’ album “Further Down the Old Plank Road.”
Why the move from the Windy City to Music City USA?
“I imagine like most people, I started out being a huge fan. But when I first moved to Nashville, I wasn’t planning on easing into country music or anything like that. Actually, I was dating a girl who was my bass player at the time and she lived here. I got down here and being a big country music fan, I was just astounded by the stories about who was here and what life here was like in the old days. A lot of that drew me into the history of country music.”
In 1999, his Grammy-nominated album “In Spite of Ourselves” found him sharing the mic with country divas Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris and Trisha Yearwood. Mainly they dusted off proven ballads like “When Two Worlds Collide,” “Back Street Affair” and “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds,” though Prine did pen the LP’s naughty title track.
John landed 15 albums on the Billboard charts, “For Better Or Worse,” a Top 40, and “The Tree of Forgiveness” #5, and just recently hit #1 on their Rock Songwriters Chart. Among his best known songs are “Sam Stone,” “Illegal Smile,” “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise.” He co-wrote “Love Is On a Roll,” a 1993 #1 for Don Williams, and “I Just Want To Dance With You,” a 1998 #1 George Strait success, both with British artist-composer Roger Cook.
One of our personal favorites is “Saigon,” produced by Sam Phillips, concerning a traumatized Vietnam vet. Although Steve Goodman claims Prine co-wrote his hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” recorded by David Allan Coe, John refused to accept credit.
Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946 in Maywood, Ill. His parents hailed from Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, where most of the family resided in a small town called Paradise. At age 14, John taught himself to play guitar, and later attended Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. After serving an Army hitch in Germany, he came back to work as a postal employee, later garnering the nickname “The Singin’ Mailman.”
Before marrying his manager Whelan, a Donegal lass, he was wed to high school sweetheart Ann Carole, and bassist Rachel Peer, both ending in divorce. He and Fiona have two sons Jack and Tommy, and he adopted Jody, her boy from a prior marriage.
In 1991, John made his movie debut in the Mariel Hemingway-John Mellencamp co-star flick “Falling From Grace,” which Mellencamp directed. Come 2001, 10 years later, he played Andy Griffith’s son in Billy Bob Thornton’s all-star “Daddy And Them,” also featuring Laura Dern, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Affleck and Diane Ladd.
We asked would that mean he might reappear on the screen in another 10 years?
Smiling, he replied, “I just wait until they ask me. I usually play the same character. I was the brother-in-law with low self-esteem. So I’m just patiently waiting for another screenplay to come along with that role in it.”
Health-wise, in 1998 Prine was treated for squamous cell cancer, which necessitated removal of a portion of his neck. In 2013, he fought another cancer in his left lung. Recently, Fiona had the Cov-2 virus, but was treated and recovered; however, her husband suffered from Covid-19, and died April 7 from the disease.
Prine, in the midst of a career revival when he fell ill, won the Grammy’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award, as announced in December 2019.
– Walt Trott