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Prime: A Small and Unfulfilling Tribute to John Prine

April 14, 2010

Over the past weekend, I found myself driving through some pretty backwoods territory listening to All Songs Considered when I heard a beautiful and haunting song that I couldn’t quite place.  The more I listened, the more I felt that I knew this song and actually began to feel somewhat embarassed that I didn’t recognize it.  It was a simple song, warm and heartfelt, and even though the lyrics were pretty morose the song left me comforted because it sounded like it was sung by an old friend.

As the middle of the song hit, I suddenly realized it was at least written by an old friend (so to speak): 

You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry,
so help me I know.

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.

These lyrics, written by John Prine, came to me courtesy of Justin Vernon, whose voice I didn’t recognize without the falsetto I’ve gotten used to lately.  The song is called “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” and it is just one of the many wonderful songs that Prine has written through the course of his thirty-plus year career. Vernon recorded the song as a part of a tribute album for Prine that will be released later in the year.  Other notable contributors are My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst, Lambchop, Justin Townes Earle, The Avett Brothers, Drive-By Truckers, and Deer Tick.

Prine has long been one of the singer/songwriters I hold most dear.  Perhaps it’s that we’re both from Kentucky, I’m not sure, but even though I rarely consider lyrics the most important feature of a song, I absolutely love the words in his music.  I was introduced to Prine via a 1995 Dave Matthews Band concert at a music festival in St. Gallen, Switzerland (where coincidentially I got to see DMB share the stage with the Pogues).  Dave played “Angel From Montgomery” during the encore and I absolutely fell in love with the song.  Because I could follow the narrative, I knew he couldn’t have written the song so upon my return to the States I headed to my favorite record store and discovered Prime Prine, an early greatest hits collection.

Ever since then, I’ve held Prine in such high esteem that when someone presents me with some “amazing” lyrics, I hold them up against my favorite Prine-penned tune “Hello In There”.  If the lyrics hold up, they must be good.  If they don’t, well they’re nice window dressing.  Prine shares with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt the uncanny ability to make a song feel natural, as if the feeling he intended is always the feeling you have.  Of the three, Prine strangely is the most down to earth, the most practical, even the most plain.  But it’s often in this plainness where beauty lies.

I’m happy t0 see that Prine is getting his due as a singer and a songwriter.  He’s still at the top of his game, having released a superb album of originals Fair & Square in 2005.  I highly recommend his music to anyone who loves highly literate, down home folk songs.

  1. PMcD permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:51 pm

    Those Darlins also have a track on the tribute album.

  2. April 14, 2010 6:24 pm

    Man, this sounds great to me. Looking forward to it.

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