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There are certain ways that we determine an artist’s reach or importance: record sales (though possibly not much longer), streaming statistics (though this is helpful for some genres more than others), tour grosses (ditto), and social media follows (strong ditto).
None of this matters when you talk about John Prine.
He’s never sold the most albums or concert tickets, and he’s certainly not a juggernaut in the streaming or social-media worlds. To understand why he has endured for nearly 50 years as one of the most beloved singer-songwriters ever, you have to rely on anecdotal evidence. You must point to actual human beings, rather than numbers, to understand the breadth of his impact. Which makes sense, given that Prine writes songs that sound like real people talking.
Kris Kristofferson (with an assist from Roger Ebert) discovered him. Bob Dylan memorized his songs before his first record came out. Johnny Cash counted him as one of his favorite songwriters. Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Goodman hung out with him. Roger Waters borrowed one of his melodies for The Final Cut. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bonnie Raitt agreed to sing backup for him. And a long list of younger singer-songwriters worship him: Jason Isbell, Justin Vernon, Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Kurt Vile, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to name just nine.
What people always say about John Prine is that he can say a lot using relatively few words. To love Prine’s songs is to catalog all of the quotable lyrics that describe something small and yet touchingly human. Some personal favorites: The kids who “run around wearing other people’s clothes” in “Sam Stone”; the way Prine changes “I’m sending” to “I’m screaming” in the last chorus of “Clocks And Spoons”; the Hollywood manager who gears up to give his client bad news by “staring at the numbers on the telephone” in “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone”; the brief history lesson about a local Wisconsin legend that begins “Lake Marie.” If you’re a Prine fan, you might have a completely different list.
For such a revered songwriter, Prine hasn’t been particularly busy coming up with new tunes lately. His forthcoming album, The Tree Of Forgiveness, is his first collection of original songs in 13 years. While Prine at 71 maintains an annual tour schedule — in spite of two different cancer scares in the past 20 years — he wasn’t inspired to write and record new material until his wife, Fiona, and son, Jody, encouraged him to get back to it with collaborators both old (like frequent co-writer and guitarist Pat McLaughlin) and new (like Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Dan Auerbach).
For one songwriting session, Prine huddled with McLaughlin and Auerbach and produced six songs in two days — one was the title track for Auerbach’s 2017 LP Waiting On A Song; two were gifted to soul singer Robert Finley, who Auerbach produces; and two landed on The Tree Of Forgiveness, including an apocalyptic blues lament called “Caravan Of Fools,” and a romantic ballad that’s arguably the best track on the record, “Boundless Love.”