On April 7, 2020, John Prine, one of America’s greatest songmakers and singers passed away in Nashville from the coronavirus. John was a good friend to American Routes, and our thoughts are with his wife Fiona and family, and all those with Oh Boy Records. We had hoped to interview John in the months prior to the virus. It didn’t happen, but this program from 2006 is one of ours and our listeners’ all time favorites.
John Prine: I’ve always thought that things only get so dark before they get funny. You know, like you only cry so long before the situation turns full flurkle, and it just becomes kind of a joke, you know? There’s humor in everything to me. I don’t have to go looking for it. The humor came mainly from my mom’s side of the family. My mom was pretty dry, but she was a real funny person. And I just think when I write songs as sad as “Sam Stone” and stand up on stage and sing them, I couldn’t possibly more than two songs like that in a row without letting the people off the hook.
Nick Spitzer: Could you say a little about your sense of the sound of your voice, its qualities and how you felt about your own sound over the years?
JP: Early on I never liked to hear my records, I was always nervous when I’d record in the studio. I wanted to get out of there, you know. I didn’t think I was a professional musician, and my first album I made it with the same guys that were backing Elvis up on record at the same time, and I had been a mailman about six months earlier than that, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what I was doing in the studio with these guys. And I could still hear it in my voice. If it wasn’t for those songs on the first album, I don’t think that album would still be around.
NS: With that classic country sound and downhome style, John Prine might seem to be from different era, or have a penchant for nostalgia, but the man resists definition.
JP: I’m just not sure I would refer to it as nostalgia. I think it’s important to hang on to things. I was always, had a real special thing for old people, even when I was a small child, and I thought they had something to teach you. You know, they surely must with what they’ve gone through.
NS: “Angel from Montgomery,” can you say a little about the song after all these years?
JP: The basic idea sprang out of another conversation with another Chicago songwriter named Eddie Holstein. One day he says, “Hey let’s write a song together.” I said, “Okay,” I said, “about what?” He had just heard me sing “Hello in There,” and he said, “I really like that song, let’s write a song about old people.” I said, “I can’t do that, because I put everything I felt about old people into that one song.” So I said, “How about a woman who’s middle aged but feels older than she is?” And he says, “Nah.” So I went home and wrote “Angel from Montgomery” by myself.
NS: Little did he know.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.