John Prine

John Prine

Atlantic, 1971

http://www.johnprine.com

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/16/2022

In the square peg world of folk music, John Prine was a round peg. He was too folk for the country music world, but too country for pure folk. Yet he earned the respect of not only fellow folk musicians, but popular artists like Bob Dylan.

His 1971 self-titled debut contains some of his best-known works (even if they’re known because of other artists performing them). And while there is some great music to be found on this disc, it has just the hint of what could have been.

Prine himself admitted he thought his performance on this album was not up to par, simply because he felt a bit intimidated from shifting from the coffeehouse stages to a major studio with professional musicians backing him. Yet there are times in the first half of the album that Prine’s songwriting talent belies any doubt he might have had in his performances.

Take a song like “Hello In There,” which captures the discomfort of not only aging, but having to face the loss of identity in life (“What could I say / If he asks “What’s new?” / “Nothin’. What’s with you?” / Nothing much to do). I only recently became aware of this song through my performing at an open mic, and when I heard another musician cover this song, I had to ask why I was just now discovering it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

John Prine is possibly best known for the song “Sam Stone,” a tale of an Army veteran returning home from armed conflict (suggested to be the Vietnam War, but never actually identified) and left do deal with a rampant drug addiction with little to no support. It is the song that first exposed me to Prine over 30 years ago… and, surprisingly, it wasn’t enough to get me interested enough to dig into his discography much.

Believe me, there are moments on John Prine that leave me kicking myself in the ass for that oversight. “Paradise” is a tale of childhood memories in a simpler time and place lost to progress; the assistance of fellow folkie Steve Goodman definitely adds to the atmosphere. Similarly, “Donald And Lydia” is a surprisingly dark tale of love – or was it simply lust in the form of loneliness? - that will have the listener hanging on to every word. And someone tell me that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” wasn’t 50 years ahead of its time; its sarcasm and satire are biting and surprisingly accurate.

Yet there are a few head-scratching moments on this one. The opening track “Illegal Smile” is decent enough, but Prine’s choice of closing the song with non sequitur phrases that rhyme with “just tryin’ to have me some fun” and that have bupkis to do with the song itself is just off-putting. And as strong as some of the songs are, others like “Six O’Clock News,” “Far From Me” and “Flashback Blues” just don’t have the same emotional or musical punch as their counterparts. It doesn’t mean they’re bad songs, just that they feel a bit out of place.

While a good album overall, John Prine’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t quite know which musical direction it wants to go. Some would argue that this defined Prine’s career to a T; he was perfectly happy following the musical muse in whatever direction it steered him, to hell with categorization. This is still a disc that is worth checking out, even if it’s only to hear the original versions of songs like “Angel From Montgomery”. Who knows? You might find yourself humming something else along the way that you discover.

Rating: B-

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