John Prine review legendary songwriter looks back to the beginning

The pioneer of the singer-songwriter movement performed his first album in its entirety and many of its songs ring as true today as 45 years ago

John Prine walked onstage around 10.40pm Thursday holding a vinyl copy of his 1971 debut album. I had to pay $7.50 on eBay to get this thing! he told the audience. What happened next was priceless: two sets of music that spanned his 45-year career including, for the first time, a performance of the album, John Prine (Atlantic), in its entirety.

That album allowed the former Chicago mailman to quit his day job, move to Nashville, and become one of the pre-eminent songwriters of his generation. You can hear why in its 13 story songs, which quietly eavesdrop on the lives of marginalized Americans: a Vietnam vet turned heroin junkie, an elderly couple forgotten by the world, a convict eating Christmas dinner behind bars, a Kentucky town ravaged by a coal company, a wife caged by a small town and loveless marriage who yearns for the rodeo.

The album helped launch the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s and remains a touchstone for how empathy, ordinary language and minimal detail can produce the weight of an entire novel.

The night was also an unexpected break for Prine, who has been touring large theaters across the US behind a new album of duets, For Better or Worse (Oh Boy). But on Thursday, abandoning his formal suit for denim and a black T-shirt, Prine performed for about 200 people at the Station Inn, Nashvilles legendary den for bluegrass musicians. The wood panelling, folding chairs, and yellowing showbills on the wall fit the humble lyrics, but the music, with guitarist Jason Wilber inflecting celestial-sounding textures, measured up to Bob Dylans take on Prine: Pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.

The concert, part of the Americana Music Festival and Conference, was a highlight among panel discussions and special events around the city. In a city where songs are currency, at a conference where songwriters are king, and in a venue championed as a showcase for both, the night was like Christmas, New Years Eve and the Fourth of July wrapped into one.

Prine turns 70 in October and has survived two bouts with cancer, with scars visible on his neck. Yet Prine growls his words softly, his voice ragged but not rough. When he delivers the grim coda of Six OClock News His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes it is with matter-of-fact resignation, the saddest kind of horror.

With Wilber and longtime bassist Dave Jacques at his sides, Prine expanded his touring band with a Jack White sideman, Fats Kaplin, on fiddle, accordion and pedal steel guitar, the singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin on mandolin, and the drummer Kenneth Blevins. On Hello in There, their playing brought the room to silence. As Jacques stretched a long bow across his acoustic bass and Kaplan let notes hover in the air from his accordion, Prine sang the heartbreaking lyric of an old man and his wife, forgotten by their children. On Angel From Montgomery, a song made ubiquitous by Bonnie Raitt (If you go into an igloo and theres a girl singer on the stage, if you sit there long enough, shell sing this song), Kaplans fiddle and Wilbers guitar called back and forth to one another as they swirled around the lyrics.

Prine noted that, despite their 45 years, many of his earliest songs hold special relevance today. Sam Stone, written in the throes of the Vietnam conflict, could easily be written about todays veterans returning home from the Middle East. Your Flag Decal Wont Get You Into Heaven Anymore, another Vietnam-era throwback skewering self-righteous war hawks. This one I really thought wouldnt last for six months, he said. I bring it out whenever we have an election. But the song that holds personal relevance to this day is Paradise, written for his parents, both originally from Muhlenberg County, coal-mining territory in western Kentucky.

Prines lyric about Peabody Energy Corp, which stripped the area for mining decades ago, has infuriated the company for years : in court documents filed last year against environmental activists, the company described the song as inflammatory.

To me, it wasnt a protest song, but when Peabody heard it, they went apeshit, Prine noted said. Thats what started the war between us. In April, he noted, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The second set featured another hour of music from Prines career. Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, joined him on guitar and fiddle for three songs, including a haunting version of Unwed Fathers. Between two songs, Prine mentioned that the guitar he was holding was the same one pictured leaning against a stack of hay bales on the cover of that 1971 debut.

I bought it new in 1968 and wrote every song on it, he said. The guitar received its own round of applause.

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