Singer-Songwriter John Prine Draws On His Roots With 'Tree Of Forgiveness'

Apr 12, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 9:58 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. John Prine has released his first album of new songs in 13 years. It's called "The Tree Of Forgiveness." It was produced by Dave Cobb, who's worked with Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton - has lead to Cobb's reputation as one of the hottest producers in Nashville. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUNDLESS LOVE")

JOHN PRINE: (Singing) I woke up this morning to a garbage truck. Looks like this old horseshoe's done run out of luck. If I came home, would you let me in? Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sins.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's John Prine expressing gratitude for a love that he experiences as all-embracing on a song called "Boundless Love." In a way, it's the openhearted flipside to a song he wrote 40 years ago with the producer Phil Spector. That one was called "If You Don't Want My Love." And it was great but also more bitterly wounded than is Prine's current state of mind. The Spector connection occurred to me in part because Prine has pulled one of these old collaborations with the '60s girl group legend out of his vault and recorded it here for the first time. You can hear the Spector influence on the echoey chorus of "God Only Knows."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD ONLY KNOWS")

PRINE: (Singing) God only knows the price that you pay for the ones you hurt along the way. If I should betray myself today, God only knows the price I paid. God only knows. God only knows. God only knows...

TUCKER: "God Only Knows" features singer-songwriter Jason Isbell on guitar and Amanda Shires on fiddle. Both also sing backup. Brandi Carlile sings background vocals on another cut, "I Have Met My Love Today." Prine's influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters is emphasized in this way. His style has always been too singular to actually imitate, but his knack for combining colloquial language with metrical precision, wordplay and bigger emotional concerns has been an inspiration to many. Producer Dave Cobb creates simple folk music arrangements that suit the jaunty tone of much of the music here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EGG AND DAUGHTER NITE, LINCOLN NEBRASKA, 1967 (CRAZY BONE)")

PRINE: (Singing) If you like your apples sweet, and your streets are not concrete, you'd be in your bed by 9 every night. Take your hand-spanked, cornfed gal and your best friend's four-eyed pal to a treat right down the street that's dynamite. Now, let your conscience be your guide. If you put your foot inside, you'll wish you left your well-enough alone. When you got hell to pay, put the truth on layaway and blame on it on that old crazy bone. Crazy bone. Crazy bone.

TUCKER: Deeper into that song, there are lines about a cemetery where they've got your name already carved out in stone and the phrase, eternity is approaching fast. Now in his early 70s, survivor of at least two bouts with cancer, Prine is thinking of his mortality these days. This becomes explicit on "When I Get To Heaven," which is about just what that title says. Let's pick it up on the second verse, in which Prine opens up a nightclub whose name gives this album its title.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN")

PRINE: (Singing) Then as God as my witness, I'm getting back into show business. I'm going to open up a nightclub called The Tree of Forgiveness and forgive everybody ever done me any harm. Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics, buy 'em a pint of Smithwick's and smother 'em with my charm. 'Cause I'm going to get a cocktail - a vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I'm going to smoke a cigarette that's 9 miles long. I'm going to kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Yeah, this old man is going to town.

TUCKER: I'm not quite sure why Prine refers to critics as parasites, given that his commercially spotty career has been helped along by writers intent on reminding listeners of his continued existence. But I'm not taking it personally. The most John-Priney (ph) Prine song on this album is the "Lonesome Friends Of Science." The loping ramble of its melody is a deceptively cozy framework for its head-scratcher of a title and a lyric that launches into both outer space and the inner space he refers to as down deep inside my head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME FRIENDS OF SCIENCE")

PRINE: (Singing) The lonesome friends of science say the world will end most any day. Well, if it does, then that's OK 'cause I don't live here anyway. I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed. I get my mail in Tennessee - my wife, my dog and my family. Uh-huh.

TUCKER: Born in a Chicago suburb, Prine relocated his musical life to Nashville a long time ago. But he's not primarily a country artist. He strums a folk guitar, but over the course of his career, he's owed as much to rockabilly as to folk. He's squarely in the singer-songwriter tradition, even as his chords and his melancholy are more suited to the blues. In this album, "The Tree Of Forgiveness," all his roots merge. He may be singing about going to heaven, but his earthiness keeps his music alive.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed John Prine's new album "The Tree Of Forgiveness." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview about Rodgers and Hammerstein with Todd Purdum, the author of a new book about their partnership, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE MET MY LOVE TODAY")

PRINE: (Singing) I have met my love today. I have met my love today. Doesn't really matter what we had to say. I have met my love today.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE MET MY LOVE TODAY")

PRINE: (Singing) I have met my love today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.