We like it when our favorite musicians wax on. And on. And on. So fans of John Prine should love this extended interview with Prine, which, for spatial reasons, didn't make it into John Lomax's recent story.
John Lomax:I never knew this, but I saw that you were a big Roger Miller fan.
John Prine: Ever since I started. He was on the radio when I first started writing songs, when I was about 14. And there was this beautiful blonde girl in my art class who though I looked like Roger Miller, so I tried to do everything I could to resemble him, you know? She was the kinda girl who was so pretty she only went out with college guys, and she eventually decided to go out with me. And I don't know if it was because of 'Dang Me' or not.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with him once after one of Willie's Picnics. Roger and his wife, Willie and his wife and Kristofferson...I mean, Roger Miller was plugged in all the time. He could walk by a wall socket and do half an hour on it. It was really amazing.
When I was still living in Chicago I used to stay at the Roger Miller King of the Road Inn in Nashville. It was a pretty neat place. I think he personally designed it for traveling musicians. Nothing was in the same place that you would expect at a Holiday Inn or a Ramada. Everything was really goofy — there as this big circular thing in the middle of the room with holes cut in it and that was where the TV was. And on top of it there was this light that had a hole cut in it and it shined the light on to the ceiling — just this little circle of light. For nooo reason whatsoever. I was just surprised that he put all that time into designing a room that would hold the attention span of a songwriter.Ronnie Milsap was the house band there.
Another thing I read was that Paul Anka was your first manager.
JP: What happened was at the time, when Kristofferson came over to listen to me, he was in town playing at the premier folk club in Chicago, and they'd asked Steve Goodman to open the show. Steve was pretty big on the local scene, and Kris and his band were pretty interested in Steve, 'cause they'd heard him so a set. They told him he needed to go to Nashville and made a record, and he told them, 'You hadn't heard nothin', you need to go hear my buddy.'
That's the way Goodman was — he kept talking about my songs instead of his own stuff, until he finally got Kris to get in a cab and come over and see me. And that particular night, Paul Anka was in town, 'cause he had played one of the ballrooms in town, and he came to see Kris 'cause I think he had put 'For the Good Times' in his show. And he just kinda happened to be there. And so because of that, he ended up being Steve and me's first manager. He sent us a plane ticket to New York. We thought that was a manager did; we knew absolutely nothing. That lasted about nine months.
Me and "Cowboy" [Jack Clement] had started on that record, and he was doing that record of his own at that time. And we had worked on mine really solid for about six months, and we had some great stuff, but we didn't have any of it on tape. So we just kinda took a hiatus — he could finish his record and he could finish mine. I had to go to Goodman and ask him to do this record over that I hadn't done. It was the first record I had done for Asylum, and they were really waiting for Cowboy's and really waiting for mine, and they weren't getting either one of them.
I really like to play "Space Monkey" for my son's friends. I saw that you and Peter Case had intended to write a pop song when y'all ended up with that.
JP: We weren't doing very good with the pop song we were trying to write. We were trying to write something than neither one of us writes. I'm not a real good co-writer. I've done more in Nashville than I've done anywhere else, and if I'm gonna do that, I'm gonna try to do something really totally different than what I would on my own. So Peter and I were tryin' to write a pop song and I think I just mentioned to him about this article in the paper about this Russian astronaut that they had left up there for a couple of days — they'd actually forgotten about him and just left him in space.
So we started talking about that and then we started talking how it used to be that it was all dogs and monkeys up there in space when they first started up. They had that dog that flew Sputnik and all those monkeys in space. Like they had in The Right Stuff, the early astronauts said that NASA was just putting them in outfits and having them do the work of monkeys. They weren't letting them fly the ships — they were top pilots, but they were just in these space capsules just floating around. So we got talking and we wondered what would happen if there was a monkey that the Russians forgot about, and they left him up there until after the Berlin Wall had come down. And for some reason it worked its way all the way to the end — you'd think that would be a one-joke song. I enjoy singing that song.
I don't sing it all the shows, but when I do, it kinda goes past being absurd at a certain point, and that's when I become like a listener instead of the singer. I really like the one-legged blind parrot that did some minor work for Dow Chemical.
What kind of reaction to do you get to "Some Humans Ain't Human"?
JP: When I first started singing that one, there was really a mixed reaction. It wasn't exactly 50-50, but there were some people who would really get pissed off. And I thought, what are those people doing at the show? I've been doing this for 35 years, and I thought it was fairly clear where I stood politically, you know? I never tried to rub it in anybody's face, but I thought it was pretty clear that I wasn't closet Republican.
And man, people wrote me these letters, saying 'Man, I've been listenin' to you for years and I have all of your records, blah, blah, blah' and they smash up my CD and send it back to me in the same envelope. And I thought to myself, 'Why are these people following George Bush?' But since then in the last 13 or 14 months, people have finally started getting turned around, wondering what the hell are we doing in Iraq.
It's really odd after having those songs about Vietnam and living through that, and singing those songs back then, and singing those songs right now. I didn't think twice about write that song today. I was in Ireland when I wrote it and Bush had just made a visit there, and man, when you're livin' overseas and you're lookin' at what your country's doing, it even stands out more so. Especially when we do stuff that really puts off the rest of the world.
Like many great songwriters, you moved around a lot as a kid, or you kind of grew up in two places. Do you think that helped your growth as a writer?
JP: I'm sure it did, because basically I'm a Chicago kid. My dad and mama were both from western Kentucky, my mom didn't miss it so much — she kinda liked movin' to Chicago. But my dad really missed Kentucky. And therefore he always made us kids feel like exiled Kentuckians, like we were misplaced, like we should have grown up in Kentucky. And all my relatives were still down there at that time, so it was always great for me to go down there and find out that that was where I actually came from and that was where my people were. I would go visit there from Chicago, and I'd say it paid off.
Could you talk about the relationship between songwriting and poetry?
JP: For years, because my music is so lyric-heavy, people would come up to me and want to talk about poetry. I don't know a lot about poetry — I haven't read a lot of it. Some folks impressed me as a kid, and some, I wondered why they bought a pencil in the first place. But to me, poetry, when it goes over to the lyrics of a song, it's usually something that the writer has to write. He didn't have any choice; it has to come out of him.
And you see that in some of Townes's work, and some of Bob Dylan's, and some of Leonard Cohen's. They weren't trying to be poetic, it's just that certain stuff has to come out of them and it had to come out in that order, and one word depended on the next, they leaned up together perfect. The reason I'm saying that about Townes is, I'm sure that if Townes had a choice, maybe he would have written about some other things, things that weren't so down. But he had to write that stuff — otherwise it's gonna come out some other way.
I wanted to ask for your expert opinion on some of Houston's best songwriters. Let's start with Guy Clark, since you already covered Townes.
JP: Guy is the perfect example of a craftsman, and I don't mean a craftsman like those guys in Nashville that write for other people. I just mean in the same way Guy builds guitars and works with wood, that's how he builds a song. Guy really peruses over the sound and meaning or a word or an image before he believes it'll fit and hold the song up. It's almost a matter of weights and measures with him. And he keeps it real basic. You never have to go to Guy and say 'Well, what do you mean by that?' Guy puts it right there.
JP: I really like the way Steve approaches politics. I was never a big fan of protest music in the '60s, 'cause a lot of it seemed to be 'Hooray for our side, to hell with all the rest.' Steve avoids that.
Since your songs connect so deeply with people, I bet you get a lot of strangers coming up to you thinking they are some of your best friends. I remember about 15 years ago, my mom said she had seen you at the store or something in Nashville and she said you looked like you were tired of being John Prine...
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JP: It's probably better in Nashville than most places, though. People are so used to seeing people that they've got records by that they're just really nice — they'll just stop you long enough to tell you you're a big part of their life or just that they really enjoy your music and thanks a lot.
And I remember something about you in Nashville 15 years ago too. I used to work at Faison's, and I remember you used to come in the Hot Chicken Club (Faison's back bar) a lot. I remember you would get a filet mignon and a potato and some vegetables, and the first thing you would do was scrape all the vegetables into the trash. Do you still not eat you greens?
JP: I still don't eat 'em, and now it's tough because I've got kids. It's hard to hide from 'em now. On Christmas Day they make me eat one green pea.
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