John Prine, Part 1

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 30, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. For the fourth season in a row, we’re pleased to host a show from the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival here in Nashville. Today, we’re pleased to welcome one of America’s true originals, a Grammy Award winner who was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, John Prine. [Applause] Welcome, John. It’s great to have you on the show.

John Prine: It’s great to be here. Thanks, Ken.

Paulson: You know, I grew up not far from where you did, in Maywood, Illinois, and — although I was in a suburb called Elmhurst — and I know a little bit about Maywood. And I know that it is not the hotbed of country and folk music.

Prine: No, it isn’t.

Paulson: Where in the world did your influences come from?

Prine: Um, my father and mother were from western Kentucky. They — they moved up to Chicago early on so my dad could get factory work. But my father never considered it to be a home, you know? He kept — he always talked as if we were going back to Kentucky, like, you know, like, if he could ever catch a break, you know, we’ll get — we’ll get to go back down there. But he didn’t want to work for any of the coal mine companies. And, unless you had a trade or something like, you know — or your father owned a business, there wasn’t a whole lot of work around there. The young people were leaving by the dozens, you know? And, um, they settled in the west side of Chicago, but, um, we had a lot of friends that were also from the South. They moved up there for work. And, um, I mean, I just plain liked it. I like country music anyway, whether my mother and father were — you know, played it around the house and that. That’s where I initially heard it, but I just, I loved country, and I loved R&B, and I loved rock and roll. And Chicago — I was lucky to be able to — we had great radio stations. I could hear it all.

Paulson: Yeah. So, what was that day that you picked up a guitar for the first time? Do you remember that?

Prine: Yeah, my bro — my brother David taught himself how to play the banjo and the mandolin and ukulele. We had a neighbor who had a ukulele who gave it to me. And all I did with it was put a strap on it and stand in front of the mirror and try and look like Elvis [Laughter] with a ukulele on you. And my brother actually took the ukulele. He borrowed it and took it away to college with him and learned a few chords on it. And he transferred those chords to the guitar. And one night, I walked in the kitchen, and he was playing the guitar for — for our father. I just couldn’t believe it that one of my brothers could actually play music, you know? It just — I couldn’t get over it. So, he saw that I was really in awe of it, and he taught me three chords and gave me a Carter Family record and an Elizabeth Cotten record so I could learn how to fingerpick. And, uh, between those two records, the Carter Family and Elizabeth Cotten, I taught myself. [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve advanced any more on the guitar [Laughter] since, you know? But it was such a wonder to me that I could sit in a room alone and make a — make a sound, make — on a guitar that it’s always amazed me, so I never wanted to get into anything too complicated.

Paulson: And, yet, it’s a leap from learning to play the guitar to writing your own songs and having the confidence to play your own songs. Where did that come from?

Prine: Um, writing my own songs came fairly easy, because, if I sang somebody else’s song, it didn’t sound at all like what it was I liked about the song. You know, so, it was easier — it was just easy for me to make up words to songs. I wrote three when I was 14 years old to impress this girl. And years later, she found a tape of it, and I put those songs on my second record.

Paulson: Wow.

Prine: You know, and they were just the same kind of songs I was writing later on.

Paulson: How is that possible? I was — I was talking to a songwriter recently, who said you throw out the first 100 songs you write. But in your case, two of your first three show up on your second album.

Prine: Yeah, I don’t throw away my — [Laughter] I edit while I’m writing, you know?

Paulson: So — so, were the songs good enough to impress the young lady back when you were 14?

Prine: Yeah, but the third song was “Twist and Shout,” which I didn’t write, unfortunately.

Paulson: I have to ask, was it the Beatles or the Isley Brothers version you did?

Prine: The Isley Brothers.

Paulson: The original, great. And so you’re off and running. Two out of your first — well, your first original compositions end up being songs you get on professional recordings. What were the next three or four? Were they on the same level as the first two you wrote?

Prine: I didn’t consider it writing. I called it “making up songs,” you know? And I would do it frequently when I first started playing. And I would just, um, sing the song until I got tired of it, and then I’d forget it. So, I don’t know if there’s any good songs back there I just forgot about all together. But I — I never considered it writing. And I laid off for a while until I got out of the army. I went in the army at 18 and got out at 20. By that time, I’d picked up writing again. While I was in the army, I had met some fellows there, and one guy liked to sing Lefty Frizzell songs. He was bunking next to me. And then there was another kid down the hall that liked playing guitar. And I was the only one that had a guitar with me. So, they’d wake me up at 4:00 in the morning when they’d come in drinking. And, you know, [Laughs] sometimes they wouldn’t have to wake me up. You know, I’d be up already. But we’d play the guitar, like — I’ve got some photos of that. It was pretty good times, you know?

Paulson: You had — you had a real promising career with the post office that you passed up on to go into the lucrative field of music. How’d you get the confidence to do that? Did you have some early success? I mean, when is the first time you played for an audience?

Prine: Um, there was this — I had taken lessons, some guitar lessons, down at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, which was a great place and still is. And one of the great things about the way they teach is it doesn’t scare you off if you don’t know anything about music. The first thing that scares you is a sheet of music, looking at the notes, you know? It still scares me. I got songbooks, and I don’t know if they’re my songs or not, you know? [Laughter] But, uh, they teach you just — they go, “Here, play this chord,” and you play it, and then they tell you what to do next. And they were giving — I already knew how to play three, four chords, but they were teaching some bluegrass licks. So, I took a six-week course, and I’d go each Thursday. And afterwards, there was a little place across the street called the Fifth Peg, and sometimes they would let amateurs get up and just sing whatever they wanted to, you know? And one night I was kind of making fun just to my other people sitting around me, you know, just saying, you know, “This is awful,” like — you know, “This is terrible stuff.” And they were saying, “Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you get up?” So, I got up, and I sang. Now, I’d never sang any of my songs for anybody except that girl [Laughter]I was trying to impress. So, I sang “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” and “Paradise.” [Laughs] [Applause] See, I thought they were really strange songs, because I hadn’t heard anything like them. So, I thought that people were either going to throw something at me to leave or go, “Nice try, kid,” you know? [Laughter] And they just sat there. They didn’t even applaud. They just looked at me, you know? I looked at them, and they looked at me. And that was about it, you know? And then the owner asked me if I wanted a job. And I said, “Doing what?” He said — he said “Singing.” [Laughter] And I said, “Man, I can’t sing.” And he said, “Just come in here and sing three 40-minute sets on a Thursday night.” You know, and he says, “And you can keep half of the door.” So, I did. And I started doing that, and I was delivering mail during the day.

Paulson: Did you have enough songs to fill those sets?

Prine: No, um, at first I didn’t. I’d fill it up with, like, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan. I think I used to do “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” too, by John Denver, and “Sweet Baby James” and stuff like that, you know, but I had — I had maybe ten — a handful of songs, you know?

Paulson: How is it possible that those first three songs you perform in public are among your most popular, are John Prine classics? The audience erupts just at the mention of their name. And you’re doing those songs 30-some years later.

Prine: [Laughs] Yeah.

Paulson: What’s the explanation for that? How is that possible the first three —

Prine: I don’t know. [Laughter] Yeah, if you had asked me to bet on it, I wouldn’t have, you know?

Paulson: I’ve never heard anything like that. We had Kris Kristofferson on the show not long ago, and he talked about — he’s very proud of the day that — that he played a role in discovering your talents and getting you signed. And he told a terrific story. I want to hear your take on it, but a central figure in that story is a guy named Steve Goodman.

Prine: Yeah, definitely.

Paulson: A man that a lot of people have heard of. They know that he wrote “City of New Orleans,” but a lot of people have not seen Steve play, because he passed away like ’83 maybe?

Prine: ’84, yeah.

Paulson: ’84? And — and he’s a unique character, and the two of you had a — had a remarkable relationship. I don’t know if it was like Lennon and McCartney or Flatt and Scruggs or Abbott and Costello. I don’t know — I’m not sure what it was, but you guys clearly bonded and were good for each other. And, um, and how did you meet Steve Goodman, and how did he end up playing such a role in getting you signed to a contract?

Prine: Steve, first of all, was on — he was on the Chicago folk scene since about 1968. He was a fixture already when I — when I came around. You know, I was the new kid on the block. He,uh, came over after I played only a couple weeks. People were starting to come and check me out from other clubs. I’ll tell you, about the third week I ever played, Roger Ebert came in to have a beer because the popcorn was too salty at the movie. [Laughter] He walked out and he came in to have a beer and heard me singing in the back and wrote a newspaper article the next day. Instead of about the movie, he wrote about this singing mailman. It was called “Singing Mailman Delivers the Message.” [Laughter] And after that, I had a full house at this little club every Thursday —

Paulson: wow.

Prine: — just from that one article, you know? And word was starting to get around, so it wasn’t too many weeks went by before, um, Steve Goodman comes down to check me out. And I’d heard Steve on the radio even though he didn’t have a — a record out. There was this wonderful radio show called the “Midnight Special” on WFMT in Chicago. And it was all folk music. And some of it was old stuff that they were just trying to introduce people to, and some of it was tapes by local folk artists in the Chicago area. And they played “City of New Orleans,” and I’d heard it several times on the radio. And I had Steve Goodman pictured as this guy — a tall, lanky guy, like with, like — kind of like a beatnik. It’s the way I just heard his voice, you know? And, um, when he came up to meet me, this guy walks in the room, and he’s about — just a little over five feet tall. And he walks and talks like Edward G. Robinson. You know, just like Little Caesar, you know? He’d get right up in your face and poke you in the chest when he was talking to you. So, we kind of became immediate friends, you know? We just palled around Chicago folk clubs until this fateful night came along with — Steve was opening for Kristofferson at the Quiet Night in Chicago. And, uh, I knew that, but I couldn’t get off work. I was working. I wanted to go see Kris and Steve play. And, um, what happened was, they got done with the show, and Kris and the fellows in his band, and, also, Paul Anka was there because he was in town playing a supper club, and he was singing, I think, one of Kris’ songs, like “For the Good Times,” or something. And, um, anyway, they were all sitting around, and they were talking about how great Steve’s stuff was. Steve didn’t want to hear about it, right? He didn’t want to sit there and just bask in it for a while. He said, “You guys haven’t heard nothin’.” He says, “You’ve got to get in a cab with me right now and go get my buddy.” And it was, like, Sunday night, you know? And it took awhile for him to talk them all into it. He got them in a cab. They came over to the place where I was at. And I was waiting for my paycheck. And the waitresses cleaned up. The chairs were upside-down on the tables. And the guy was counting the money out and cleaning the Irish coffee machine. And here comes Kris Kristofferson with Samantha Eggar and Paul Anka and Goodman. And they come over, and I unpack my guitar, and I get up and do a set just for them. They take the chairs down from the tables and sit right in front of me, and I do my entire repertoire for them, you know? [Laughs] And that’s pretty much how it went down, you know? But Kris was, um — Kris couldn’t have helped Steve and I any more than he did. And one thing I always try to impress, especially upon people that know about the business is that — all the record business and the publishing business — is Kris never took Steve or I to his record company or took us to his publisher, you know? He just introduced us to some of the best people in the business, you know, and just let it go like that.

Paulson: That had to be the single most intimidating audience you’d ever been in front of, then or since, right?

Prine: Yeah, but I was — I was pretty loose by that time. [Laughter] [Applause] And, um, when I got done — the second I got done — I just, I sang everything I could think of. Kris stood up and asked me if I would just stay up there and sing all of them over again. [Laughter]

Paulson: And you said?

Prine: I said, “Sure, what do you want to hear first?” He goes, “The one about old people.” I said, “What do you want to hear now?” He goes, “The one about Donald and Lydia.” So, like, I just — he had just heard them, and I started — I was getting requests already. [Laughter] You know, it was really — it was a magical night, for sure. You know, and Steve and I ended up going to New York City eventually because of that, and we weren’t there 24 hours when we both had record contracts. We went back to Chicago like conquering heroes, you know?

Paulson: Almost ought to have a disclaimer now for people watching at home: Kids, don’t try this. It doesn’t — it doesn’t work that way.

Prine: No, it’s not — no, none of it’s supposed to work that way. I didn’t know it at the time. I’ve learned since. You know, telling my story to other people that have been, like, doing everything but twirling batons to try and get into, you know, show business, yeah.

Paulson: You know, those songs you played that night ended up being the core of your first album, called John Prine on Atlantic Records. Incredible reviews. I mean, you — Roger Ebert’s praise paled by comparison to what was to follow. And it was a huge, huge critical favorite, and you began to build an audience. And, uh, the songs on that are still songs you do now, but one of the songs that got my attention at the time, because it was a very political time, was “A Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore.” Now, you’ve never been — [Applause] you wouldn’t be — you’re not an overtly political songwriter. No one mistook you for Phil Ochs. But that song was right there, and I think one critic said it was sort of the exact opposite of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” which, given your respect for Haggard, you were probably pretty enthusiastic about that. And so — but it was the times, and songs would be more overtly political. I wonder if we could ask you to sing that song.

Prine: Sure. [Applause] It came from a — I wrote this on my mail route. It was one of the [Guitar strums] publications that all of us mailmen hated to see coming was Reader’s Digest. [Laughter] And it was mainly because of its size. It was real bulky, but it was small. It was small like a letter, so you had to carry it with the letters, you know? And, like, you could only fit about maybe four Reader’s Digests and then about a handful of mail in each bundle. And you would end up with 160 bundles, because everybody was taking Reader’s Digests, you know? And one day, this flag in the middle of a Reader’s Digest, with no explanation, it just — you open it up, and there’s a free flag decal this big that you just peel off the back and stick it anywhere you want. And, so, I thought it was a little odd when I was delivering them. The next day, I came out, and people had them stuck everywhere. And they weren’t just stuck. They were, like — they put them up there, like, and stuck them on there like that, like, “That’ll show ‘em.” [Laughter] It was like that, you know? And I thought, “Wow, you know? Shoot, things are even worse than I thought they were, you know?” [Laughs] [Plays and sings] “/ While digesting Reader’s Digest / in the back of the dirty bookstore, / a plastic flag with gum on the back / fell out on the floor. / Well, I picked it up, and I ran outside / and slapped it on my window shield. / And if I could see old Betsy Ross, / I’d tell her how good I feel. / But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. / They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war. / Now, Jesus don’t like killin’ / no matter what the reason’s for. / And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. / Well, I went to the bank this morning. / The cashier said to me, / ‘If you join the Christmas club, / we’ll give you ten of them flags for free.’ / Well, I didn’t mess around a bit. / I took him up on what he said. / And I stuck them stickers all over my car / and one on my wife’s forehead. / [Laughter] But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. / They’re already overcrowded / from your dirty little war. / Now, Jesus don’t like killin’ / no matter what the reason’s for. / And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. / Well, I got my window shield so filled with flags, / I couldn’t see. / So, I ran my car upside a curb / right into a tree. / By the time they got a doctor down, / I was already dead. / And I’ll never understand why the man / standing at the pearly gates said to me — / ‘But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. / We’re already overcrowded / from your dirty little war. / Now, Jesus don’t like killin’ / no matter what the reason’s for. / And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore.’ /” [Applause] Thank you. Thank you.

Paulson: John, it’s interesting to hear you talk about the life cycle of a song, because, while some songs come and go, that first album, you’re still playing a third of it in many of your sets.

Prine: Yeah.

Paulson: What — of those songs — what’s had the greatest staying power and where you’ve had a consistent audience reaction over 30 plus years?

Prine: “Sam Stone.”

Paulson: “Sam Stone.” And the —

Prine: Yeah. [Applause]

Paulson: I’ve read that people didn’t initially understand that song. Is that right?

Prine: Yeah, part of that was my fault, because I was — I talked a whole lot, you know, when I first started singing, because I was really nervous. I couldn’t wait to get the singing part over so I could start talking again. [Laughter] And I would tell these stories. And I — I was never one for preaching or anything, and so, like, most of the stories, even if they were going into a song that wasn’t humorous, the story would end up being a bit humorous, you know? I couldn’t see any reason for taking up people’s time if there wasn’t going to be a punch line, you know, there, or if it wasn’t going to lead to something. So, sometimes I would tell this — I would tell about all my adventures as a U.S. soldier before I would go into “Sam Stone,” you know? And a lot of them were fairly humorous. And then hit them over the head with this song, and when people would hear, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” for the very first time, a lot of times there would be, like, people — kind of nervous laughter. And then the second time it would come around, they would talk, you know, about the song right then and there. They would start talking – sometimes to me. And by the time it’d come around the third time, it was absolute silence, you know? And, so, I guess if I were to set the song up a little bit, it may be a little bit better, you know? But they weren’t — they just weren’t looking. They didn’t know what was coming, you know?

Paulson: You’ve done that nicely here. You’ve set it up. You’re going to join us again next week. I wonder if we could close out today’s show —

Prine: Sure.

Paulson: — with “Sam Stone.”

Prine: All right. [Plays and sings] “/ Sam Stone came home to his wife and family / after serving in the conflict overseas. / And the time that he’d served / has shattered all his nerves / and left a little shrapnel in his knee. / But the morphine eased the pain, / and the grass grew round his brain / and gave him all the confidence he lacked / with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back. / There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. / And Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose. / Little pitchers have big ears. / Don’t stop to count the years. / Sweet songs never last too long / on broken radios. / Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm. /” [Applause]