A lot of singer/songwriters have a knack for losing touch with reality by the time their second albums hit the shelf. Sure, they’ll sing about life and its struggles on the first, but perceptions change with notoriety.
If anything, though, John Prine is revered for staying true to his own sweet self. He began his career as many musicians do, playing a local watering hole. His first songs were like all the ones to come after: loving commentaries on the human condition. Within a couple of years he had enough material and admirers to pluck a few tunes at an after-hours gig for Kris Kristofferson, who in turn brokered an Atlantic Records deal for Prine. Something like that could go to a man’s head real easy, but throughout the records that followed, Prine only became brighter and more humorous, staying the course and cracking the code of some of life’s simplest mysteries. He also let his Dylanesque wheeze fade in favor of a stoner cowboy’s drawl to narrate the stories that personalized the songs for the listener.
A few things have happened here and there since those early days. Too many songs to mention, now forever engrained in time; Christmas LPs, acting roles, Grammy awards and something else that pops up in conversation every few years: “Have you heard John Prine’s disco album?” Hey, the late ’70s did weird things to musicians.
In 1984, Prine took the ambitious step of setting up his own label, the Americana-friendly Oh Boy Records, releasing the work of like-minded artists who prefer to scrub against the grain. Diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in 1997, Prine quietly dealt with surgery and treatment and then went back to work. In Missoula a few years ago, he played a great show with a drummer-less trio and, to top it off, held court at one of our own favorite watering holes.
Some perceptions need never change; some artists become wiser and mellow with age. And, as is fitting, when Prine returns we’ll once again treat him like a favorite cousin coming around for a visit, with a wink and a nod and a tale that’s odd.
John Prine performs Tuesday, Nov. 16, at UM’s University Theatre at 7:30 PM.