King of his own country
Today's 'country music' is often pop repackaged by record companies, according to John Prine. Judging by the success of his new album, there's a market for something more, writes Joe Breen.
'I like small stories. I'm like a newspaper-aholic. I go to a news stand and I even buy newspapers I don't like. What I'm looking for is the stories in one and two paragraphs. Usually I'm just looking for something odd - something I can tell someone else about, like man bites dog. Those are the kind of people that make up the world and the rest of it is a lot of hooey."
John Prine, the renowned American songwriter and performer, is outlining how he goes about gathering the raw material for his crafted, often humorous songs of stoical endurance in a world of trouble. On the cusp of 60, he has been around for the guts of 40 years, though he could never be accused of outstaying his welcome. He has released just 18 albums, the latest of which, Fair & Square - his first new work for 10 years during which he won his battle with throat cancer - has been among his most successful. "I thought there'd be less people around after 10 years! But it's selling really well and there's a few more people at the concerts than before, even younger ones."
On the cover of the album he is pictured walking down a road in Kinvara, Co Galway, where he owns a summer house with his Irish wife Fiona and their two young boys. So perhaps the Irish influence has helped?
"Maybe. Over the years I wrote a lot of the songs during the summer in Kinvara and that's the way the music seeps in with me. If I sit around long enough and play with players it starts to creep in."
Indeed, the success of the album has delayed plans to move to Galway on a full-time basis. "We usually spend every summer there, except this last year - I just couldn't take the time off. My wife and kids came over for a while but usually as soon as the children are out of school we go to Kinvara until they have to go back."
So he's practically half-Irish?
"Yeah, I think I'm getting that way . . . we live in Nashville and as the boys had to go from elementary to middle school we had this big idea that as long as they had to change schools, why don't we just change countries? And then the record came out and it changed all plans. It's still on the cards - we're still thinking of staying over for a year or two because the boys are pretty comfortable over here. They have their friends and everything - they don't drop a beat; they haven't spent a summer in the US since they were born."
He met his wife when he was recording a TV programme called The Sessions in the Point Depot in 1988. "We filmed for three days and then had a huge party in Blooms . And that's where I met Fiona; she was working in Windmill Lane. She said she had seen me the first time I had played in Dublin. And she asked when I was going to play Dublin again. I said 'right now'. Somebody handed me a guitar and I started singing. And that was it - the beginning of the end."
Prine has been described as the master of the turned cliche. This prompts a typically gravelly laugh: "Good words for the gravestone." But his use of cliches and everyday language ties his music into the classic country music tradition. Does he feel a direct affinity with country music?
"Yes, my mother and father were huge country fans and we always had country music around the house and my mother used a lot of those cliches. But my dad in particular was a huge country fan. He would prop the window up with the radio and have it facing south so that it would pick this or that country station. And he would sit there with his quart of beer and if you wanted to talk to him you could join but that was where he was."
That was in the 1950s when country music was in its heyday. Has it gone a bit weird since?
"Very. It hardly resembles itself."
So what has happened?
"I think the record companies discovered that there was a hole in pop music and they could fill it with so-called country, this mediocre pop stuff which they call country. You know, country music was never about a young guy with tight jeans. I mean, there have been real-ugly critters who have sung country music. And they just came up with this thing that they could treat like pop music and it's all good-looking gals, good-looking boys and it doesn't matter what they sing, they just produce them, know it'll turn out like this; the whole machine - it's got very little to do with country music. That's ok with me. I've got plenty of old records which I can buy."
He has little good to say for the major record companies. "Record companies are just big corporations and basically they're going to start disappearing - they disappearing as we speak! They've got so big for their pants they don't have any pants any more."
His antipathy for the record business was so great that he formed his own company. "They had problems marketing me and I had problems watching them market me. So I just didn't want to work at that factory. I just wanted to play my music, put records out. So I had to figure out how not to deal with those people - that's what Oh Boy was started for. And as I'm not the most prolific, to keep the company afloat we had to do other projects.
"Some of them are just redistributing old country records nobody wants to bother about, and every once in a while we are able to put another artist's record out."
His fondness for the 1950s is also evident in the material he chooses to cover, such as the wonderful oddball songs he covered on his excellent series of duets with female singers, In Spite of Ourselves.
So would he have preferred to have lived in that time? "In general I thought it was a better time. And without being nostalgic, America in the 1950s was a different place. I mean we spend part of the year over there in the west, in Kinvara. I think it was 1982 or 1983 when I first went to Galway. A friend of mine said, 'hop in here', and we took a wild ride to Galway. It was the middle of the arts festival when most of the venues were the ballrooms of the Great Southern. And we fell into all this music going on and met some great people that I know to this day. I started driving through Connemara. And the rural areas of Connemara and Clare reminded me of America in the 1950s. There was something going on - or not going on. I liked it. It was a good feeling.
"Now I can see how quickly things are catching up but I don't think I would really like to live in a different time. I imagine that, apart from the music, the 1950s had a lot of things we don't have today. I mean they didn't have Ipods!"
As with many of Prine's songs, the tone is ambiguous. You find yourself laughing at the dumbest thing, being touched by the corniest remark or humming along to the simplest tune. Yet there is great humanity - and humility - running through his work. And he is funny. Not smartass funny at someone's expense - Prine is an expert on the wry side of life.
"The characters in my songs are just vehicles to describe different emotions or just to get a point across. Very rarely are they based on somebody I know - it's usually just a combination of quirky people and I'll put them in a situation where I have a better chance of getting across my point or emotion."
His craggy voice - "it's a shaky thing, some days it's good and some days it's gone" - casually outlines the future. His current British and Irish tour involves him playing with the "same two fellas [David Jacques on double bass and Jason Wilber on lead guitar/mandolin] I've had with me for the past 10 years - we make about as much noise as I want to make".
In January he goes into the studio with bluegrass singer Mac "the voice with a heart" Wiseman. "He's got a beautiful voice. He's like a crooner. We've been talking about doing something together for years and we just thought that it was time. We're going to take a bunch of old songs we like and make a record together. And whenever I get enough new John Prine songs, if they are still making CDs, I'll put another record out. Maybe now that I've got the process down I'll make the new one a little faster with a picture of me coming up that road . . ."
Next year he has the small matter of a 60th birthday.
"I'm not particularly looking forward to it. I was just starting to get fond of being in my 50s. I guess it'll be fine. I don't think I'll like 60 - 62 or 63 sounds better. But jeez when I turned 50 a lot of stuff happened: I'd never been a father before and four years later I got the cancer. I'm not sure what I did for the first 50 years but it seems like a whole lot has happened in the past 10."
John Prine plays in Dublin's Olympia tomorrow; Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Mon; Millennium Forum, Derry, Wed; Glór, Ennis, Fri ; Town Hall, Galway, Sat