Imagine it -- you're sitting in a Chicago dive bar, having an utterly uneventful evening. A steady stream of dilettantes is taking the open-mike stage with their moon-June rhymes, banal diary entry songs and poorly rendered Dylan and Phil Ochs covers. From a table nearby you hear a few guys getting drunker and rowdier as the evening goes on. Maybe you can even hear some of the chatter. One guy -- a vaguely Asian-looking kid of about 25, fresh out of the army and currently working as a mailman -- is sniggering and telling his buddies he's miles better than these amateurs. They get sick of his bragging and tell him to get up there and prove it.
And so he grabs a guitar, walks up to the stage, tunes up, tests the mike and sings: "Sam Stone came home / To his wife and family / After serving in the conflict overseas," and moves on to the devastating chorus: "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes / and Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose."
Next up is "Paradise," which was destined to become one of the environmental movement's most powerful musical statements. And then he throws in the very first performance of "Hello in There," one of the only and certainly the most eloquent, touching and beautiful songs about old people ever written.
If I were that club owner and that scene had unfolded before me, I would probably have died of a heart attack on the spot. Except in the movies, totally unknown mailmen don't walk into open-mikes and serve up the debuts of three of the greatest songs in the history of American popular music back to back to back.
Luckily, the guy who owned that bar was made of sterner stuff. He promptly offered John Prine a steady gig. Prine was as astonished by the offer as the club owner was by his performance. "I'd never given any thought to making a living at it," he says, over the phone from his home in Nashville. "I might as well have been harboring plans to become an astronaut. And all of a sudden I become a singer-songwriter: I sang a couple of songs on a dare and they offered me a job."
Prine's elation gave way to concern. What was he going to do for an encore? Naive to the ways of show business, he figured people wouldn't be satisfied with the songs he sang that night. "I thought the same people were gonna come every week, and I'd better have different songs or they were gonna get bored with me," he says. "So I wrote my entire first album under that premise."
So between shifts at the post office, he sat down and cranked out "Spanish Pipedream," "Illegal Smile," "Donald and Lydia," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore" and "Angel from Montgomery," all over the course of a few weeks, just so people wouldn't get bored with him. It's one of the most remarkable runs in songwriting history. "Illegal Smile" is the most fun and least preachy of all the pro-pot anthems. The enjoinder in "Spanish Pipedream" to "blow up your TV" is often quoted by people who wouldn't know John Prine from Nolan Ryan. "Your Flag Decal..." sounds just as current today as it did in 1971, and "Angel from Montgomery" would play at weddings without number throughout eternity.
Few singer-songwriters can match even one of these songs in their whole career, much less pack all of them on a debut album, but Prine was just getting started.
Ask John Prine about any one of his songs, and the interesting story is usually not in the song's genesis so much as it is in the song's afterlife. Take "Paradise," for example, the idyllic Kentucky hamlet where "the air smelled like snakes / we'd shoot with our pistols," the one Mister Peabody's world's largest shovel hauled away. It's a great anthem because it never preaches -- it merely states a few facts as to what "the progress of man" brought to a few square miles of a once-pretty, now-ruined Kentucky county.
There wasn't much to the actual writing of that song -- indeed, Prine thought so little of it he had to be dared to sing it the first time on that remarkable night in the Chicago bar. But once it was out there, no less an authority than Bill Monroe mistook it for an ancient folk song that had escaped his notice, and then it went on to serve as the hymn at a most unusual service.