If film critic Roger Ebert had not walked into the Fifth Peg club one night in 1970 and heard the voice of an unknown singer/songwriter named John Prine, there is no doubt that Prine would still have found the fame and admiration he deserved.
But it was Ebert who brought the young Maywood mailman the first public recognition. Among Ebert’s remarks in the Sun-Times: “(Prine) appears on stage with such modesty that it almost seems as if he is the center of attention. She sings quite quietly and her guitar work is good, but she doesn’t show off. It starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room start listening to his words. And then it got you.”
This is a great reviewIt is made in Ebert’s characteristically fluent style, with his sharp observations and comments. It makes for great reading, and is the first of more than four dozen great things to read (actually devour) in a wonderful new book, “Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine.”
This is the latest in Chicago Review Press’ “Musicians in Their Own Words” series; A valuable work capturing talents such as Tom Waits, David Bowie, George Harrison, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell and others.
Editor Holly Gleason told me she first heard of Prine when she was 12 in Cleveland. She finally met him when she was 20, she writes, who lives in Florida and writes music reviews. She interviewed Prine for a story that was never published. But as she became a veteran of the music journalism scene and book author, she maintained a close relationship with Prine and his colleague and friend Dan Einstein, to whom she was once engaged and who did not live to see it. the book is completed.
Her feelings for Prine are evident in her own writings and the choices she makes. He knew her with a love that flirted with idolatry, but why not? Everyone seemed to love Prine and/or his music. Even Bob Dylan, who never gave up on meaningless admiration for others, once said: “Prine’s work is pure Proustian existentialism. The mind of the midwest is extremely wandering. And he writes beautiful songs.”
So there’s a lot of praise in these pages, and Gleason is right when he writes in the introduction that Prine “hates talking about himself, hates dissecting his songs… putting the spotlight on him makes him feel awkward, even a little weird.”
Prine died in 2020, bringing back memories for those of us of a certain age, harkening back to the nights during the Fifth Peg or Earl of Oldtown scenes where Prine was part of a great song in which he declared, “I’m John Prine and these are some songs I wrote.” Folk star cast including such great talents as Bonnie Koloc, Steve Goodman, brothers Ed and Fred Holstein, and unforgettable others. As Ebert wrote, “Prine’s lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words.”
There is no music in this book. In this book you will find the man in all his fascinating, introverted, self-deprecating and inspiring aspects. It could serve as a biography, detailing the signposts and bumps in Prine’s road to fame.
In addition to Ebert’s now legendary first review, Chicago is well represented. There’s a piece of 1975 Studs Terkel’s radio interviewwho called Prine on the air “about the most inventive and poignant of today’s American songwriters and singers.” Former Sun-Times writer and filmmaker Dave Hoekstra has three beautiful works; In one of them, the singer shares chicken wings and talks scenarios with Prine after moving to Nashville.
Lloyd Sachs writes thoughtfully from Chicago 2005 story It focused on Prine’s first successful fight against cancer in 1998. There are plenty of other nice things, too, like a 1973 interview with Cameron Crowe, who would go on to have an Oscar-winning film career with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). “Jerry Maguire” (1996) and “Almost Famous” (2000).
Crowe was a teenager in 1973 and his older sister accompanied him in his interviews. As he recalls in this book, he ran into Prine decades later at the Grammy Awards and reintroduced himself. He is writing:
“I thanked him for our interview (long ago) and said he probably wouldn’t remember it.
“He said, ‘Of course I want it.’ ‘Your sister was there too… Tell her I said hello.’”
Actor Billy Bob Thornton and respected critic Robert Hilburn appear in the book. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser takes the stage.
There is inevitably some overlap, but one emerges from these 340 pages entertained, enlightened, and certainly eager to hear Prine songs again like “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Lake Marie,” “Angel From Montgomery.” There’s a lot of listening waiting.
Mike Leonard knows this music. A son of the northern suburbs, where he still lives, he was the engaging correspondent of the “Today” show for decades.
He appears twice in the book, in “Today” segments from 1986 (in Nashville) and 1991 (mostly on a tour bus). These reminded me of a 30 minute memory documentary he and business partner Mary Kay Wall spoke out about Prine in 2016. Leonard told me about this:[Prine writes] songs that endure as he endures, the resilient artist continues on his path, his decrepit voice and scarred body symbolizing the human fragility that is often a hallmark of his lyrical stories.
On camera, Leonard asked Prine if he was tired of singing and playing the same songs for 45 years. “The songs continue to grow,” Prine said.
When you read this beautiful book, you will understand what he means and much more.