If coining clichés were as easy as minting money, John Prine would be Johny Cash. Prine’s catchy delivery of bite-sized truth makes his work a popular stash to raid. He’s been covered by artists ranging from Dylan to Abby (Dear Abby, that is), along with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Hunter S. Thompson, Nanci Griffith, Bonnie Raitt, Don Williams, Elvis Costello. Not to mention Johny Cash.
In his 30-plus year career, John Prine’s material has shown up in more flavors than Baskin Robbins, while never really wandering out of the realm of folk, whatever that means. Its lack of definition aside, folk fits Prine like a glove, like the haiku fit Basho. Shooting snakes by the Green River in his album Paradise, or sniffing his honey’s undies in the great American fairy-tail-esque duet In Spite of Ourselves, Prine’s words inevitably swing you by your tail between tragedy and comedy so fast that you don’t even know exactly why you’re huckin’ and bawlin’. And the man can rock like Elvis. Presley, that is. He even recorded his first album with the King’s rhythm section. And if Bruised Orange doesn’t force your head up the mystery of our collective existence, then Prine should write a song about you.
And we should all be so lucky, because that man can write. Prine collects sentences like prize marbles. Even stealing, when necessary, but always improving. He used to carry around a piece of paper to collect similes, like “she eats like a bird” and “he smokes like a chimney.” One day he had enough similes to sit down and write a song that used as many as possible, calling it “When the Earth was Flat as a Pancake, the Mona Lisa was Happy as a Clam.” Now with a new name, “It’s a Big Ol’ Goofy World,” the song is a recycling job that puts compost to shame. Its collected artifacts serve as mere backdrop for the original nuggets that Prine packs into this flaming comic reduction of human-heart sauce, bound to compel even the hairiest of bikers to rumble to the nearest Hallmark store a month before Mother’s Day. It’s just too bad that at $30 a ticket, all but the hobby-proletariat will have to choose between tickets and supper for the kids.
But things are tough all over. Prine recently recovered from a singer’s worst nightmare: throat cancer. The surgery changed his voice, causing him to shift key on some of his old classics. Now the “Oldest Baby in the World,” who always seemed to be singing far ahead of his time, has finally grown into his prophetic songs, and the paraphrased consensus report is: Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks like a diamond ring? (collectively stolen from J. Prine).
Indeed, Prine is currently on fire, sounding new and fresh, wise as always, and full of surprises like that topless dancer with something up her sleeve (Stolen from J. Prine). Glad you made it John. I’d rather they didn’t make you an angel just yet, please.
John Prine plays the Wilma this Wednesday, May 9 at 7:30 PM. Tickets $30 general, $26 UM students, available at all TIC-IT-EZ outlets or by calling 1-888-MONTANA.