John Prine's 45-Year-Old Freshman Album Proves Unusually Fresh Bait at Americana Fest

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music
John Prine performs during the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference at the Station Inn on Sept. 22, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. 

Sorry, out there: Hundreds of fans are unable to get into Nashville's Station Inn to hear "Hello in There" and other classics from his eponymous debut, or see his next-gen support from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.

On John Prine's eponymous 1971 debut LP, the country/folk singer-songwriter sang the still-relevant "Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore." As part of the Americana Music Festival in Nashville on Thursday night, Prine did a run-through of that celebrated album in its entirety, a one-time-only affair which proved to be the toughest ticket of the nearly week-long gathering. And as fans of the classic iconic artist discovered: Your conference laminate won’t get you into the Station Inn anymore... unless you got in line for Prine’s set about five hours ahead of time.

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A few VIPs were ushered into the club past the dozens of hopefuls left cooling their heels on the sidewalk outside, like Nashville’s new mayor, Megan Barry, who was celebrating her birthday at the gig. Barry had a pretty good in, besides just flashing her mayoral badge, Prine’s opening act Amanda Shires and husband Jason Isbell had just performed at her inauguration. Shires and Isbell also sat in with Prine for a few songs in a post-intermission “hits” set, pairing the current king of Americana with the guy who was its crown prince two and a half decades before anyone thought to coin the term.

The Station Inn’s emcee spent plenty of time warning customers that no drinks would be served during the full-album performance, presumably due to it being too quiet to compete with beer bottle disposal -- leading Prine to quip that “we’re gonna play ‘em as fast as we can so the bar can explode open and you can guzzle away again.” That would have fit with his wife’s suggestion about how to handle the 45-year-old-album: “She said, ‘If you really want to make it authentic, you could do some helium before you start singing.’ Irish humor.”

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Prine noted that he still plays 10 of the album’s 13 songs at his regular theater gigs -- “not that there’s anything wrong with the other three” -- and, in fact, the eponymous album’s full airing could nearly have passed for a best-of set to those only vaguely familiar with his catalog. What’s remarkable is how fully realized Prine’s writing voice was upon arrival and how singular it remains, with a still unmatched combination of world-weariness and whimsy, neither one the quality most associated with 24-year-old upstarts, then or now.

Prine was in top form as a rauconteur as well as album revivalist. Some of his thoughts about these nearly half-century-old songs:

“Angel from Montgomery”:Bonnie [Raitt] has taken this next song [global], so there are people who can’t speak English who know this song. If you walk into a bar -- even in Alaska, if you walk into an igloo and it’s a bar -- and there’s a girl singer on stage, if you sit there long enough and drink long enough, she’ll sing this song.”

“Sam Stone”: “This is a song about a Vietnam veteran and if I was a gambling person, I would have bet this song would have had a life expectancy of maybe a year, because things were winding down and there were protests going on everywhere and it looked like somehow we were gonna get out of Vietnam. I thought, well, who’s gonna want to hear a song about Vietnam after Vietnam’s over? Here it is 45 years later and those veterans just won’t go away. When I write something this sad, I hate to be right.”

“Hello in There”: Mentioning that he had just taken pains to teach himself some more complicated chords than he was previously comfortable with, “I still had the old ones I got from Carter Family records, too, and I put ‘em all in one song, and this was it. I had no idea they would come out in the right order.”

“Paradise”: “Three ballads in a row! I guess the good people at Atlantic Records really wanted to keep your attention.” Prine talked about the cognitive shifts that come from playing an album in its original sequence, taking certain favorites out of a different spot they usually occupy in a show. “No matter how many songs we sang in the encore, we never sang this until the end of the night. People who come to show after show, some of them know to go get their cars when this song starts. So it’s very unusual for us to play it in the first 20 minutes of our show. Usually we can smell the pizza in our dressing room…

“I wrote this with my dad in it and it’s a true song. It’s about what happened to his hometown. They used to take us to Paradise all the time when I was a kid. Paradise was about 98 miles straight north of Nashville, up 431. When I was away in the army, my dad sent me a newspaper clipping and it said the Peabody company had bought the town and tore it down and strip-mined that whole place. So I wrote the song [as] just a natural fact that that’s what happened. If a tornado had taken the town down, I would have written about the tornado. So to me, it wasn’t a protest song. When Peabody heard it, they went ape shit. They thought this kid from Chicago was after them. At the time, they had passed a few environmental laws making coal companies responsible for trying to reclaim the land after they were done destroying it. What they did was bring in goddamn fir trees from the northwest and they planted 'em about 17 feet off the interstate, so if you parked your car and walked past 17 trees, you’d see a moonscape. Then they put big billboards up all over southern Illinois saying Peabody was an environmentalist. Anyway, that’s what started the war between us. About three months ago, Peabody went bankrupt!” The crowd went wild with applause as Prine grinned, but then, he quietly added, “I hated to see all those miners get laid off, because that’s the only job they knew. I wish it had been a tornado gone bankrupt.”

“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”: “I was saying I didn’t think ‘Sam Stone’ would have a very long life expectancy. This one I really thought would last about six months. We put this one in mothballs sometimes, but we always seem to bring it out when there’s an election, because that’s when everybody gets their flags up, [wanting them] bigger than down the street, for all the wrong reasons.”

Virtually every other performer at Americana Fest is limited strictly to a one-hour slot, but no one was about to deny Prine the two and a half hours he wanted, with the John Prine recreation followed by a second set of less obviously contemplative favorites. The term “less obviously” is key, because even the rowdier songs in his usual set tend to have barbs attached, from “Six O’Clock News” (“The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o'clock news/ His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes/ C'mon, baby, spend the night with me”) to the double-homicide that ends the crowd-pleasing show-closer, “Lake Marie.” The most unremittingly happy song in the show: “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a musical living will and plea for dismemberment.

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That wish aside, all hands were on deck when Isbell and Shires sat in on guitar and violin and even provided some lead vocals. After singing a duet part on “In Spite of Ourselves,” Shires made the provocative revelation that touring recently with Prine and singing the lines “She looks down her nose at money/ She gets it on like the Easter Bunny” had caused her to go out and get a bunny tattoo in tribute to Prine, though she did not reveal where.

Maybe she can be coerced into divulging its exact whereabouts when she opens for Prine again next weekend, this time in the first of two shows at Nashville’s far less intimate but equally sold-out Ryman Auditorium. Holly Williams is opening the second show on Oct. 1; both gigs are devoted to promoting Prine’s new duets album, For Better, Or Worse, with expectations high that some of his other partners on the project (which also has cameos by Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss and others) might stop by Prine’s own personal Opry.

Set list:

Illegal Smile
Spanish Pipedream
Hello in There
Sam Stone
Pretty Good
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Far from Me
Angel from Montgomery
Quiet Man
Donald and Lydia
Six O’Clock News
Flashback Blues
In Spite of Ourselves
Unwed Fathers
Storm Windows
Please Don’t Bury Me
Saddle in the Rain
Christmas in Prison
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Glory of True Love
Lake Marie