Prine’s debut album, John Prine, was released in 1971 and got him hailed as a “new Dylan,” a singer-songwriter’s kiss of death. He managed to shake off that jinx, and ever since has been writing songs that are, by turns, tender, joyful, droll, poignant, eloquent, and sometimes just plain goofy. Indeed, that’s the name of one of his standards, “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” a song made up entirely of similes, whose nonsense verses—’cause if you lie like a rug / and you don’t give a damn / you’re never gonna be / as happy as a clam—nevertheless remain both endearing and true.
Prine was born outside Chicago in 1946 and raised in rural Kentucky. He moved back to the Windy City in the 1960s, where he worked as a mailman and wrote songs while walking his route. He came up in the singer-songwriter scene there with fellow songster and kindred spirit Steve Goodman, who introduced Prine’s work to Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson helped facilitate Prine’s signing with his first major label, Atlantic Records.
Prine penned many of his most timeless tunes in the 1970s, like the colorful, “Grandpa was a Carpenter,” about his grandfather who was level on the level / and shaved even every door / and voted for Eisenhower / ’cause Lincoln won the war; the sly “Dear Abby,” which lampoons the advice columnist: Dear Abby, Dear Abby / Well I never thought / That me and my girlfriend would ever get caught / We were sitting in the back seat just shooting the breeze / With her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees / Signed Just Married; and the melancholy, often-covered “Angel From Montgomery,” a searing portrait of old age that begins, I am an old woman / named after my mother / my old man’s another / child that’s grown old / If dreams were lightnin’ / and thunder were desire / this old house would’ve burned down / a long time ago.
Tired of corporate record companies, Prine formed his own label, Oh Boy Records, in 1979. He won a Grammy for the 1991 The Missing Years (which he made with Tom Petty producer Howie Epstein), then in 1997 was diagnosed with neck cancer, which, following surgery and radiation treatment, made his voice go lower. He didn’t release another album of new material until the 2005 Fair & Square, which revealed that his heart and mischievous humor were still intact. In one of the record’s best songs, “Takin’ a Walk,” he recounts a surprise visit to an ex-lover: I wish you could have been there / when she opened up the door / and looked me in the face / like she never did before / I felt about as welcome / as a Wal-Mart Superstore. For most, however, a visit from the singer is cause for celebration.
Prine will appear at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on January 6 at 7:30pm. (518) 273-0038; www.troymusichall.org.