This profile first appeared in Paste on Nov. 23, 2011.
Blame the wife.
“Fiona made me clean out the garage,” John Prine confesses with a chuckle that’s equal parts warm breeze, cold beer and fried chicken. “I cursed her every day… But she was firm. She said she wasn’t moving the stuff to the new house.
“She got a dumpster—and sent me to the garage. Boxes from my first marriage, boxes from my second marriage… boxes from before I moved to Tennessee. Boxes and boxes and boxes… and in one of them…”
…were several reel-to-reel tapes, long forgotten but dating back before the iconic American songwriter was discovered by Kris Kristofferson and signed by Jerry Wexler to Atlantic Records in New York. One set of recordings were made after an interview with Studs Terkel at WFMT; the other was an early show at Chicago’s Fifth Peg, where the man still walking a mail route in Chicago would sing his songs three nights a week.
“All those years, I’d wished I had something from the Fifth Peg… Because I know how those nights felt, but to be able to listen to it, to hear it? I’d’ve given an arm to have even had a cassette of a night there; then there it was on reel to reel tape in pristine shape even before we had them treated.”
The wonder in Prine’s voice is palpable. The quality of the music is striking.
“Hello In There.” “Paradise.” “Angel From Montgomery.” “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues” (later known as “Sam Stone”).“Illegal Smile.” “Spanish Pipedream.” “Blue Umbrella.” “Souvenirs.” They’re all there on his new retrospective album The Singing Mailman Delivers—fully formed, but infused with both a wide-eyed soul-searching and a folkiness that is equal parts bluegrass and Bob Dylan.
“I was struck by how innocent I was,” Prine admits. “When I started, I was that innocent—and it was amazing how quickly that was gone. I was signed, dined and thrown back and forth between both coasts in less than a year.
“I was never able to get back to that guy, but I never forgot him. You just can’t see things that way any more. Where I was from, how I was raised, those things never leave you, but the innocence? Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Prine, who had been in the service in Germany and came home to deliver the mail, never meant to be a voice of his generation. That was for other people, but he did hate the biting dogs and brutal cold he encountered on his route. Indeed, most people didn’t even know he wrote songs.
“I wasn’t doing this for attention or to be on a record,” he explains. “That was such a different world! People whose records you bought? Or saw on TV? I didn’t aspire to that… I never even thought about it being a place I couldn’t get to or be a part of; that was just something else! Honestly, I just wanted to get off work and get home, have fun. Write songs, and all that. But there was no end game. Heck, I didn’t even think about a game: I just wanted to write and play those songs.”
So much so, that most of Prine’s friends had no idea. A few knew he played guitar. Only one buddy knew anything about the songs. He was an artist; Prine would go over to his studio and write while he painted, then they’d show each other what they’d created.
“When I got up that night at the Fifth Peg, it was an open mic night and the people were just awful. I thought, ‘I can do better than this…’ I’d been at the Old Town School [of Folk Music], learning bluegrass. Those are my classmates in the audience. They introduced me as ‘Davey Prine’s little brother…’
“I went up there and played ‘Sam Stone’ and a few others; they didn’t even applaud. They looked at me. All I could think was, ‘Wow, I’m screwed… What do I do now?” cause it was so quiet. Then the place just exploded.”
The songs no one knew he was writing were written along Prine’s mail route. In part to entertain himself, in part to take a break in the little shelters along the way, in part to work out things that were running around his mind. It wasn’t Voice of a Generation stuff; it was Prine’s own inventory.
“I didn’t talk about the stuff I was writing about,” Prine says in that rasp. “I thought about it all the time, but never said anything. People would never have expected those songs from me. But I saw these things all around me, and nobody ever talked about them. That was the big thing: nobody ever talked about them. They were taboo.
“I knew there were a lot of GIs out there, who came out of the war and they weren’t quite right… [“Sam Stone”]. I knew there were homes where nobody was talking to each other, which became ‘Angel from Montgomery.’ … I knew there were kids who didn’t have fathers, and nobody ever acknowledged it, which became ‘6 O’Clock News.’… I saw all that. I knew, and I couldn’t figure out why no one would say anything.”
John Prine pauses, taking stock. He’s not a crusader. He laughs about some journalist asking him “Why there aren’t more political songs?” then says, “Heck, I don’t write political songs…” Though you know—if you know him—his politic is humanity.
“In the end, people want the truth,” the Grammy-winner explains. “The second you start second-guessing or writing ‘to’ them, you’re screwed. You can’t make ’em authentic. People think through marketing they can deliver what people want, but [people] know.”
So John Prine, the singing mailman, kept delivering mail, watching the people, puzzling about life and writing his songs. When film critic Roger Ebert ducked out of a bad movie and into the Fifth Peg for a drink, he saw the dark-haired folkie—and decided to write about him instead. The people came.
Studs Terkel asked him to do his radio show. “He was working on his book called Working. I told him about my dad, and he wanted to interview him—but [Dad] died before they did it.”
The engineer on that show agreed to let Prine record some of his songs after the interview. That document became the first disc of Singing Mailman. The engineer, who also hosted the local folk radio show called “The Midnight Special,” introduced him to another local folkie, Steve Goodman, who’d become Prine’s best friend.
“It was magical,” Prine says of the time. “My dad came to see me at a point. I remember him standing up in the bar, going ‘That’s my boy!’ He’d come in with a couple union buddies…
“And then going to see Kris [Kristofferson] in New York… Getting off the plane at 7 and going down to the Bottomline where Carly Simon was opening. Every record company person was there. Getting up, singing a few songs—and having a record contract on Jerry Wexler’s desk at 10 the next morning!
“I remember walking around on our way down there—and I’m from Chicago—and looking at those skyscrapers, thinking, ‘Whoa…’ It wasn’t real.”
Except it was. And it did. And then even more happened. Four decades later, John Prine still sells out multiple nights at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium, as well as annual shows at Washington, D.C.’s Wolf Trap and Los Angeles’ Wilshire Theatre. His songs—especially songs like “Paradise” and “Angel from Montgomery”—have become such a part of the culture, many assume they’re traditional folk songs. He was the first songwriter to read at the Library of Congress. It still doesn’t make much sense to him.
With a documentary in the works, directed by noted photographer/filmmaker Jim Shea, The Singing Mailman Delivers was meant to be a companion piece. “But when we found the stuff from the Fifth Peg, I got excited. That’s what makes this interesting to me: I was able to capture that innocence in a way you know [it’s real].
“It was there on the tape—and there in the pictures. It was me in the beginning of all this, where these songs really came from. Me talking not because I was entertaining, but because I didn’t want to go from a song where somebody killed themselves to an even sadder song. It didn’t seem right…”
And yet, somehow, listening all these years later, it’s more than right—it’s perfect.