John Prine on His Duets Album 'For Better, or Worse' & His 'Sassy' Song With Kacey Musgraves
John Prine's new single will definitely spark memories among the traditional country music crowd. Titled “Fifteen Years Ago,” the song was a No. 1 hit in 1970 for Conway Twitty. Prine told Billboard that even then, the song made an impression on him.
“It’s a really good story song, which I’ve always been a sucker for,” Prine said. “It tells a story with a theme that I haven’t heard in a lot of other genres. I was familiar with Conway Twitty’s original, of course, but about 10 years ago one of my musician buddies from Ireland came to visit me. One night I took him down to the Station Inn in Nashville when The Sidemen played each week. I used to go down and hear them. One of the guys got up – just him and his guitar – and sang it for me and my buddy. That night, the song just kind of became brand new again. My buddy ended up recording it in Ireland, and asked me to sing on it.”
Fast forward to 2015, as Prine began work on his new album, For Better, Or Worse. A sequel of sorts to his 1999 Grammy-nominated duets disc In Spite Of Ourselves, Prine was coming up with a possible song list -- and “Fifteen Years Ago” was at the top. His collaborator for the track is Lee Ann Womack, of whom Prine paid the ultimate compliment, saying “getting her to do it made it all the better, because her voice is just pure country.”
Womack also lends her vocals to a cover of Jessi Colter’s “Storms Never Last” on the project, which will be released on Oh Boy Records Sept. 30. Prine said that the recording process concerning For Better, Or Worse was very open, with a couple of the artists bringing their own selections to the dance.
“Everybody I would approach, I would give them two or three songs for us to possibly do, but I’d also tell them that I was totally open to other ideas,” he said, allowing that one artist’s suggestion led Prine on somewhat of an educational listen through the early works of George Jones. “Most of them chose one of the songs, but Susan Tedeschi wrote me a letter and said ‘John, I’ll do anything you want me to do, but here’s some songs that would work really good. At the top of the list was ‘Color Of The Blues.' I knew most of George Jones’ big hits. But for some reason that one had totally passed me by,” he said of the song, which was a No. 7 hit for “The Possum” in the spring of 1958. He was hooked. “I remember getting into the studio, and Susan singing it, I just thought it was a really cool song.”
Unlike a lot of duets albums, Prine said that all but one of the cuts -- including artists such as Kacey Musgraves (“Mental Cruelty”), Miranda Lambert (“Cold, Cold Heart”) and Morgane Stapleton (“Look At Us”) -- were recorded live, with both artists present. “We cut every one of them live except the Alison Krauss track (“Falling In Love Again”). The band was really hot one night, and we had done three artists, and still had an hour left over. We cut the track, and I sang on it. It came off so good. [Producer] Jim Rooney asked me ‘How in the heck can that be a country song?” I told him to put some steel on it. That’s how we pitched it to Alison. As it turned out, it was her dad’s very favorite song of all time. She was very determined to do it, but her schedule was so busy and we had a rough time scheduling a date. Finally, Jim went to Alison’s home studio, and she did it there. The rest of the tracks, we cut eyeball to eyeball with the band right around us.”
Being up close and personal helped to set the give-and-take feel of the songs on the album, said Prine. “I think the reason that I like duets is because of the back-and-forth thing, as far as chemistry goes. If you’re not singing back and forth to each other, you’re not going to get that feeling of flirting or hurting. I think the ones with Iris DeMent (“Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out”) and Kacey Musgraves really have that sassy feel. I think we really got that.”
The album closes with a Prine solo cut of a song called “Just Waitin.” He said it definitely has a personal connection – as well as a historic one. “It’s a ‘Luke The Drifter’ recitation. I’ve been a fan of his recitations since before I could play the guitar. My dad was a huge Hank Sr. fan, and part of the reason I learned Hank’s songs when I was 14 was so I could entertain my dad and prove to him I could sing those songs that he loved. That’s why I became a songwriter. I wrote ‘Paradise’ for him and wanted to show him I could sing and write like that, too.”
Does it amaze him that over four decades later, “Paradise” remains an American classic? Absolutely, he says, but admits the staying power of his catalog as a whole is a little surprising. “I’m still surprised by the fact that I’m singing ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.’ If I was a betting person, I would have thought the life expectancy would have been about six months. I thought that they were very political songs at the time when Richard Nixon was president. But I’ll be darned if those songs still don’t ring true every night I sing them. I don’t think that ‘Paradise’ will ever go away, because so many people were affected by strip mining, and still are with the fracking and stuff.”
One constant between his new duets album and its 1999 predecessor is the work of legendary photographer Elliott Erwitt. Prine said he remains intrigued by Erwitt's work. “He is a world-renowned and very iconic photographer. He likes black and white, which I do too. I remember that on In Spite Of Ourselves, I just went to the Green Hills Library, and I took six books of his to a table. He had one of nothing but couples. Even on the back of In Spite Of Ourselves, there were two old cars, and they were leaning into the back of each other. His eye captures inanimate objects that look like couples. I ended up buying several of his books online, and there was this picture of this one couple where it said ‘Just Married,’ and you had that bumper sticker -- ‘She got me this morning, but I’ll get her tonight’ -- I thought that fit the feel of these songs so right.”