When John Prine was still working for the U.S. Postal Service, performing on the weekends at “The Fifth Peg” in Chicago, a certain ambitious movie critic named Roger Ebert happened to drop by the bar and listen to his set.
After the show, he quickly sat down at his typewriter and cranked out a review he called, “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words”. You can find the review (as well as some Prine video performances) on Ebert’s blog as the post – John Prine: American Legend.
To give you just a taste, here are some snippets –
He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.
He does a song called “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” for example, that says more about the last 20 years in America than any dozen adolescent acid-rock peace dirges. It’s about a guy named Sam Stone who fought in Korea and got some shrapnel in his knee.
But the morphine eased the pain, and Sam Stone came home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” That’s Sam Stone’s story, but the tragedy doesn’t end there. In the chorus, Prine reverses the point of view with an image of stunning power:
“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm
Where all the money goes…”
Prine’s songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He’s closer to Hank Williams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. “In my songs,” he says, “I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.”
I ran across this review on Ebert’s blog (in February 22 of this year, almost 25 years after it was written). I was inspired to respond with an allusion to another Prine song called “Spanish Pipedream” –
I first discovered John Prine on television, of all places, as I saw his PBS documentary in December of 1982.
I responded by blowing up my TV, going out and picking up a topless lady with something up her sleeve. We moved to the country where we eat peaches and raise children who all find Jesus on their own.
I appreciated the review, Mr. Ebert. Keep up the good work. Maybe someday you’ll get discovered, too, and you can quit your day job.