John Prine, Part 2
“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 30, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today we continue our conversation with legendary songwriter John Prine. But first, here’s some of what he had to say last week.
John Prine: I just couldn’t believe it that one of my brothers could actually play music. He taught me three chords and gave me a Carter family record. [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve advanced any more on the guitar —
Prine: — since, you know, but it was such a wonder to me that I could sit in a room alone and make a sound, make it on a guitar — that it’s always amazed me. So I never wanted to get into anything too complicated. I never sang any of my songs for anybody except that girl I was trying to impress.
Prine: So I sang “Sam Stone” and “Hello In There” and “Paradise.”
AUDIENCE: [whistles and applause]
Prine: And they just sat there. They didn’t even applaud; they just looked at me. [Plays and sings] / There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, / where all the money goes. / And Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose. / Little pitchers have big ears. / _ Don’t stop to count the years. / Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios. /
Paulson: Ladies and gentlemen, our very special guest, John Prine.
AUDIENCE: [cheers and applause]
Paulson: You know, we finished off last week with a conversation about a couple of your more compelling songs. Songs that people have talked about and reacted to in dramatically different ways: “Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” and “Sam Stone.” There’s one other song on that first album I wanted to talk to you about, which, uh, has been widely reported as a pot anthem: “Illegal Smile.” Is that true? Is that a drug song, John Prine?
Prine: It became one, you know?
Prine: I mean, um, like I kind of had that in mind when I wrote it, but not in particular. There used to be a phrase when Jack Paar was the host of “The Tonight Show.” There was a phrase about an illegal smile. And I always, uh — I, uh — quite a bit of the time when I was going to school, there was a lot of things that seemed humorous to me that I was the only one there that it seemed humorous to. So I always kind of had this half smile on my face anyway, you know, because usually there was always something going on. And usually, it was humorous, you know, to me. And so I would refer to that as a illegal smile. But, um, as soon as I started singing the song, it quickly became, um — I did this public-access TV show in 1969 in Chicago. The guy asked me on and puts me right in front of a big plastic marijuana leaf —
Prine: — to sing my song. And I didn’t know you were supposed to get paid for being on TV. So I didn’t accept anything for it, and the Union followed me around for two years for being on that show.
Paulson: I’ve got something I need to explain to you, John, about this show.
Paulson: The — and so that was a period when Spiro Agnew was giving speeches about how we needed to watch out for the Beatles singing drug songs and all that. Did anybody come after you for “Illegal Smile”?
Prine: No, not that I know of. [laughing]
Paulson: It’s never too late.
Prine: If they were following me, I thought they were with me.
Paulson: You know, after you have a really critically acclaimed first album, which we discussed last week. And the critics all love it. And these are all the songs you’ve written during your first couple of years of songwriting. And then you have to do it again. You know, you had an album then called Diamonds In The Rough. Is that tough to go, “How — how can I write another 12 songs?” Or was that a kind of a challenge for you?
Prine: Yeah, it has been ever since. [Laughs]
Prine: I mean, I always used to put together — those first songs I wrote were really unique in the way that I didn’t know I was writing, you know? I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t my job. It was my hobby, you know? It’s what I did to get away from the world. And that alone puts you in a very special place, you know, and as soon as you start doing it for a living, it screws everything up. [laughing]
Paulson: The world is full of people who had a great first album and then never again, and let alone to have a dozen like you have. I wonder if you could do a song from that second album, Diamonds In The Rough. One of — one of the favorites on that is “Great Compromise.” I wonder if we could hear that.
Prine: [guitar strumming] It was supposed to be, uh, this guy dating America like she was a young — I figured America was a young country, so I figured she was a young teenage girl, you know? [Plays and sings]/ I knew a girl who was almost a lady. / She had a way with all the men in her life. / Every inch of her blossomed in beauty. / And she was born on the Fourth of July. / She lived in an aluminum house trailer. / And she worked in a jukebox saloon. / And she spent all the money that I gave her / just to see the old man in the Moon. / I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory. / and awake in the dawn’s early light. / But much to my surprise, / when I opened my eyes, / I was a victim of the great compromise. / / Well, we’d go out on Saturday evenings / to the drive-in on Route 41. / And it was there that I first suspected / that she was doing what she’d already done. / She said, “Johnny, won’t you get me some popcorn?” / And she knew I had to walk pretty far. / And as soon as I passed through the moonlight, / she hopped into a foreign sports car. / I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory. / and awake in the dawn’s early light. / But much to my surprise, / when I opened my eyes, / I was a victim of the great compromise. / It goes on a little ways.
Prine: Thank you.
Paulson: You’ve always tackled topics that other people didn’t. You’ve written songs that were distinctly different from everybody else and written them in ways that other people didn’t. I’m struck by — a lot of people are talking now about “Passion of the Christ,” you know, a lot of discussion about how Jesus is portrayed in popular culture. Jesus pops up on most of your records in one form or another.
Paulson: There’s a great line in the first song on the album we just talked about: “Everybody.” You want to share that with the audience?
Prine: Sure, it’s — well, it’s another song that I wrote where the story — I always thought the story was better than the song. [chuckling] The introduction, I mean, it was about a guy who, uh, was pretty well pleased with himself. And, uh, he didn’t want hardly for anything. But all of — all of his friends and his coworkers, they were always wanting stuff and talking about stuff they wanted. And all this guy really wanted to do was fit in. So he tried to think of things he wanted, so he could have something to talk about with these other people. And, uh, so he thought, “Well, uh, what do I want?” He started at A, and he couldn’t think of anything. Got to B and said, “I want a boat.” So he got a boat. And he took the boat out on the sea and was going around with it. And it happened to be the same day that Jesus was out walking on the water.
Prine: And so this guy bumps into him. And, um…well, I’ll sing the first verse. [Plays and sings] While out sailing on the ocean, / while out sailing on the sea, / I bumped into the Savior. / And he said, “Pardon me.” / I said, “Jesus, you look tired.” / He said, “Jesus, so do you.”
Prine: “Go and sit down, son, / ’cause I got some fat to chew.” / It goes on, you know?
Paulson: So we move some years ahead, and you’ve got a song called “Jesus, The Missing Years.”
Prine: [Laughing] That’s right.
Paulson: And you got to tell us about that song. Where’d that come from?
Prine: Wow, I wrote it about 4:00 in the morning. I was a bachelor at the time. It was in between marriages. And I wrote it and made a recording of it on a tape and didn’t listen to it for about a week. I was scared to listen to it. I thought, “Oh, you know, I don’t want to listen. I can’t listen to that,” you know. And when I did, I thought, “Hey, I kind of like that.” So the first thing I did was, I went to the record store and tried to find a recording of lightning. Because I was going to — it was going to be a spoken-word song with nothing but thunder and lightning in the background. And, uh, I just, uh — I got, uh — I ended up with a lot of thunder and lightning records.
Prine: But it somehow worked out the more I performed it, um — in the studio — I hadn’t performed it for anybody yet. The more sense it made to me, you know? UM, I don’t know where ideas for songs like that come from. But, you know, Mel Gibson made a —
Prine: — heck of a lot more money than I did at it.
Paulson: For those who haven’t heard the song, it ostensibly tells the story of those years in which we’re not quite sure where Jesus was. And you explain a variety of things, including, I think, touring with the Rolling Stones as one of the references.
Prine: Right. Well, I figured — it really surprised me when I first — I don’t know much about it, but I don’t think anybody does. You know, if they don’t know — if the scholars don’t know where the heck he was, then I — my guess is as good as any, you know? So I figured I might as well make a song up about what happened to Jesus. And I figured, “Well, you know, uh, I suppose he was probably lost just like everybody else is, you know?” So I just wrote about him in different — it doesn’t really matter whether the year’s 1963 or 1963 B.C., you know? I mean, I figure man has always pretty much made the same mistakes. We probably will continue to do so, you know?
Paulson: Now, is it true that your producer, Howie Epstein, said, “Don’t record that, John”?
Prine: Yeah, Howie said you’ll get — he will get crosses burned on his front lawn.
Paulson: And did you get any kind of reaction to it?
Prine: Yeah, I did. I got one I was really proud of. A guy sent me, um — he broke a, uh, CD. I didn’t you could break them.
Prine: You know, he smashed it, you know? Like they used to smash records.
Paulson: And sent it to you?
Prine: He actually smashed it and sent it to me. Said he’d been a fan for many years, and he couldn’t believe that, you know, that I would do anything like that. And I thought, uh — I just thought, “What kind of headphones was this guy listening to me on” —
Prine: ” — all these years?”
Paulson: [Laughs] Yeah, he missed a few songs.
Prine: Yeah, I thought so, you know?
Paulson: You, uh, you had a rich recording career. You were on Atlantic and Asylum and recorded a great body of work. You had fascinating producers. You worked with everybody from Steve Goodman to Steve Cropper and then later Howie Epstein. uh — a lot of people. And yet your sound has always been your own. I think probably the most unusual record in that period, though, is one you travel — traveled to Memphis and went to Sam Phillips’ Studios for a — really a rockabilly record in some ways.
Paulson: You did “Ubangi Stomp” along with some of your own stuff. How did you get — you fall into that setting?
Prine: It came from working with Cowboy — from working with Jack Clement here in Nashville. And Jack and I had worked on a record together. Uh, Jack was producing my record and also producing himself. And, uh, we got to doing both records at once. And after a while, we couldn’t figure out whose record we were doing, you know? So, uh, we gave it a rest, but I came back to hang out with Cowboy the next year. And, uh, it was soon after that that I moved to Nashville from Chicago. I just had made so many friends down there. I just really loved the town, the whole feel of the town. And — [chuckles] uh, I was — so I had this idea — it wasn’t so much I was thinking about doing a rockabilly record. It was just I wanted a — a record done right out in the middle of the room with all the noise and everything — up as loud as the music, you know? If somebody bumped into something, I wanted that right in the listener’s ear. And, uh, so I think it was Allen Reynolds actually that — that suggested I maybe — “Maybe you should go talk to Knox Phillips if you want to make a record like that.” And so I did. I went and looked up Knox. And Knox and Jerry, his brother, they, uh, listened to my songs and said, “Well, we got this great studio here.” And it was the studio that Sam Phillips had built, uh, after Sun.
Prine: He built this in about 1962 in Memphis.
Paulson: Sam Phillips, of course, was the man who really discovered Elvis, launched Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, all those careers. You actually got him to come out of retirement, didn’t you, to help with the production on this record?
Prine: Yeah, he was going to the bank one night and saw the lights on in the studio and thought he’d stick his head in to see what was going on in his own studio. And I was singing, and I was upstairs at the time of the studio and — when Sam first came in, and, uh, he heard my voice, and he thought he should stick around and try and fix it. [chuckling]
Paulson: The, uh — Sam passed away not long ago.
Paulson: And I wanted to raise him because he plays another role in your life, later in your life. when you had a bout with cancer. And you had to make a decision about what to do, and apparently Knox, uh, his son, had had a bout with that as well.
Prine: Yeah, well, this is — this was many years later. And it turns out, I had, uh, neck cancer. And I’d never heard of it before — before the doctor told me about it. And, um, not many people I knew had ever heard of it either. And out of the blue, I was looking for doctors. I was talking to doctors all over the place and deciding where to go for treatment, and I get this call from Knox. And it turns out that Knox — I haven’t talked to him now in maybe seven, eight years when this happened. And Knox had just gone through what I was about to. And he told me just all these stories that he’d been to the wrong doctor, did this, and did that. And him and Sam went and hunted all around the world for the best possible place they could find and the best doctors they could find for that particular kind of cancer. And they found him in Houston, Texas, at M.D. Anderson. So Knox talks to me for a while. And my initial reaction was, “Why, first of all,” I’m thinking to myself, “Why — how did this — how did Knox find out what’s going on, and why is he pitching this one hospital to me?” That was my reaction. And Knox could tell that, you know, even though I was nice to him on the phone and said, “Well, thanks, Knox; all right.” He, uh, could tell I wasn’t really listening. So two days later, I get a call from Sam. Sam gets me on the phone for an hour and just keeps talking about how nice these people are in Texas. This is the place to go. And he ends the whole conversation with, “And, John Prine, if you don’t go down to Texas immediately,” he says, “I’m coming to Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m going to kick your ass every inch of the way.”
Prine: So I said, “Yes, Mr. Phillips,” you know? So I went down there, and they couldn’t have been more right. When I got there, I knew I was — I was at the right place. And they really took care of me down there.
Paulson: You’re a pioneer in launching your own record company. I mean, this was something that everybody and his brother does now. But you and Steve Goodman were — may have been the two first prominent artists to go ahead and do that. Early ’80s, right?
Prine: Yeah, Steve was first. Steve, uh — Steve and our manager, Al Bunetta, they started Red Pajamas, started doing Steve’s records by mostly mail at first. And, um, just about that time, my second major deal had run out. And we were both glad. The record company was glad to be rid of me, and I was glad to be away from them. And I didn’t really want to do anything for a while. I really wanted — I didn’t want to be attached to anything. I just wanted to go and make my music and see how I wanted to go about getting that music out. But just think about it that way rather than think about, “Well, where can I go next? How am I going to make a record?” you know? And so we started Oh Boy. And — um, it — [chuckling] — talk about ideas working that you don’t have any reason to think — I don’t know what we thought at the time. We weren’t — well, I think we thought we’d just do it for a little while until we figured out who we wanted to go record for. Um, the fan base that I had, when they found out I had my own record company, they were so supportive. It was just amazing. By the time I put my second record out on my own label, on Oh Boy, people were sending checks in for the record. And the record wasn’t written or named. And they were sending me their checks. And they wanted the record. Like, “Whenever it is named and it is done, send me the first copy,” you know? And so while we were recording the record, it was paid for, you know, from the people that were going to get the music. And I thought, to me, that felt just — just right, you know? That’s the way it ought to be, you know?
Paulson: And the good news is, when you do really well with a record, you get to keep all the money. And — and that’s what happened with The Missing Years, 1991. Howie Epstein of the Heartbreakers comes to you and approaches you about recording —
Paulson: — with you, and that record takes off and goes gold and — and wins you a Grammy. And that had to be the most lucrative rec — record of your career.
Prine: Yeah, it was. It, uh, you know, thankfully, they bought — it kept selling through the years, you know? It kind of sells like jazz records. Like, slowly but surely, they keep selling, you know? It — it’s mainly through people, through fans — they like it so much; they make — make somebody sit down and listen to it.
Paulson: That’s 20 years after your first record. And — and then you get arguably your biggest success. How did that feel? I mean, that — that was — a lot of people after 20 years, their career’s not what it was. And yours was arguably peaking.
Prine: Well, it felt great.
Prine: That’s how it felt. It felt just right too.
Paulson: John, the time has flown by, and we’re at the end of the show. And I wonder — you’ve got this great body of work. If you could play anything of your choice, we’d really appreciate it.
Prine: That’s a tough one — anything. [chuckling] [strumming light tune] Oh, I got one here. [Plays and sings “It's a Big Old Goofy World”] / _ Up in the morning. / Work like a dog. / It’s better than sitting like a bump on a log. / / And mind all your manners. / Be quiet as a mouse. / / Some day, you’ll own a home / that’s as big as a house. / / Well, I know a fella. / He eats like a horse. / / Knocks his old balls around the old golf course. / / You ought to see his wife. / She’s a cute little dish. / She smokes like a chimney / and drinks like a fish. / / There’s a big old goofy man / dancing with a big old goofy girl. / Ooh, baby. / It’s a big old goofy world. / / Elvis had a woman / with a head like a rock. / I wished I had a woman / that made my knees knock. / / She’d sing like an angel / and eat like a bird. / And if I wrote a song, / she’d know every single word. / There’s a big old goofy man / dancing with a big old goofy girl. / Ooh, baby. / It’s a big old goofy world. / / Kiss a little baby. / Give the world a smile. / And if you take an inch, / give ‘em back a mile. / / Because if you lie like a rug / and you don’t give a damn, / you’re never going to be / as happy as a clam. / So I’m sitting in a hotel, / trying to write a song. / My head is just as empty as the day is long. / / Why, it’s clear as a bell. / I should have gone to school. / I’d be wise as an owl, / instead of stubborn as a mule. / And there’s a big old goofy man / dancing with a big old goofy girl. / Ooh, baby. / It’s a big old goofy world. / Ooh, baby. / It’s a big old goofy world. /
AUDIENCE: [cheers and applause]
Paulson: John Prine.
Prine: Thank you.
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