THIS GENIUS OF SONG: John Prine
THIS GENIUS OF SONG
John Prine, American song-writer with American SongWriter.
by Norman Warwick
A new John Prine tribute album (see our cover picture above), Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2, out released on October 8 2021, and any fans who were previously unaware of this or have not yet got hold of a copy should seek it out now. At a time when this old world needs all the help it can get, the profits raised will be put to good social causes for those in need.
The star-studded tribute record features standout artists like Brandi Carlile (“I Remember Everything”), Tyler Childers (“Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You”), Iris DeMent (“One Red Rose”), Emmylou Harris (“Hello In There”), Jason Isbell (“Souvenirs”), Valerie June (“Summer’s End”), Margo Price (“Sweet Revenge”), Bonnie Raitt (“Angel From Montgomery”), Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (“Pretty Good”), Amanda Shires (“Saddle in the Rain”), Sturgill Simpson(“Paradise”) and John Paul White (“Sam Stone”)
American SongWriter magazine, is a must read for fans of American new and old. and in a perfect demonstration of why I say that they recently published for the for the first time, the entire conversation between John Prine, ´this genius of song´, with their journalist Paul Zollo (left).
Paul Steven Zollo (born August 9, 1958) is a singer, songwriter, author, journalist and photographer.
Paul Zollo is a songwriter, singer, recording artist for Trough Records, author of many books, photographer, and music journalist. He is presently the Senior Editor of American Songwriter magazine.
The books he’s written include Songwriters On Songwriting, More Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations with Tom Petty, Expanded Edition, and Hollywood Remembered.”
The leader of the L.A. band The Ghosters, with whom he made one self-titled album of his original songs in 1984, he’s made two solo albums, Orange Avenue and Universal Cure.
He’s written songs with many songwriters and artists, including Darryl Purpose, Steve Allen, Dan Bern, Bob Malone, Stephen Kalinich, and Severin Browne.
Zollo was the editor of SongTalk magazine for many years, and went on to become Senior Editor of American Songwriter magazine and Managing Editor of Performing Songwriter magazine. He has also contributed articles to many magazines including Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Musician, Oxford Press, Playback, Gorgeous, Boulevard, Music Connection, and Campus Circle.
Rolling Stone, in the immediate wake of Prine´s death, even wrote of this interview in a tribute:
´John Prine was a humble guy who didn’t give a lot of interviews, but his interview with Paul Zollo is a master class in song-writing´.
They quoted from it, including one of the many luminous moments of song-writing wisdom John shared with us. The Washington Post and several other publications also quoted from it.
Calling it a master-class did smack of some hyperbole. But it’s not untrue, because anytime John shared his insights on song-writing, it was golden. He implicitly understood aspects of this mission from the very start that many songwriters never reach. It was one of many unlikely, and somewhat miraculous, things about the guy.
In this passage which they quoted, John spoke of a dynamic that distinguishes his songs: his ingenious use of poignant, physical imagery. (Of which, examples abound: the old trees that just grow stronger in Hello In There, the flies in the kitchen from Angel from Montgomery, the broken radio in Sam Stone.)
From Rolling Stone we read:
´I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks´, Prine told Zollo. ´Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what colour the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you just draw the foundation. I still tend to believe that’s the way to tackle it today´.
The journalist Paul Zollo introduced this second America Song-Writer print of his interview with Prine by saying:
My current work continues on a written tribute for John which is about as long as Moby Dick now, and doesn’t seem like enough. Don’t worry – I will cut it down, and complete it. But it’s just been too damn sad right now to get it right. Hell, I’m still sad about losing Steve Goodman, who was John’s best pal and another Chicago hero. And we lost Stevie decades ago. But his absence always was hard to accept. And now this. John was always the survivor, the one who remained, honouring Goodman’s legacy while gradually becoming one of the world’s most revered and beloved songwriters. (Which would have made Steve so happy.)
Because as all these years have passed, a slow but sure expansion of awareness of the singular Prine greatness has become more pronounced, and our friend from the ´land of the windchill factor´, became a living legend. Deservedly.
So although the man isn’t officially among the living anymore, his legend is even greater. Like Lincoln, another Illinois hero, John belongs to the ages now.
But still, it’s tough for us, and for all his fans and friends. I revered him and, like many, considered him a teacher, and a personal hometown hero; he was also part of my life from that first album on. I lived in his albums, went to his shows, celebrated his Chicago greatness as the world discovered him, studied his songs seriously, and wrote a lot about him.
I was heartened by how many people loved this interview. The best review of it came from John’s beloved wife, Fiona, who was his champion to the end, and one of the best things to ever happen to John Prine. “You sure know the measure of the man,” she said.
When John’s late manager Al Bunetta read it, he called to tell me he loved my passion for John, and invited me to work on a Prine documentary, which I did for more than a year, on and off. We did filmed interviews with every important living figure in his life, his family, his band, and many other legendary songwriters who were happy to share all the reasons John Prine mattered; Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Roger Waters, Bernie Taupin and others all said yes to our invitation, and talked about John on camera with us.
When Al died, all our footage was put away, and has yet to be edited. Hopefully that day will come soon. But working on it allowed me to spend more time with John, and I got to know him even better. (Thank you Al.) Which was a delight. Even in real life, he was seriously hilarious. But in a gentle, Midwestern way, always happy to make fun of himself. He was very serious about song-writing and his work. But he never took himself too seriously, which was charming.
So this loss, especially coming as it did in a sorrowful season of the pandemic lockdown, had been awful to accept for so many of us. There’s the feeling that this world just doesn’t make much sense without him.
But he left us a universe of miracle songs. Songs into which his warm, whimsical spirit was injected fully and will always remain. And for that we remain grateful.
Here is our full feature including our 2009 interview with one of America’s greatest songwriters, our beloved pal John Prine.
Straight From The Streets of Maywood he came, a mailman with a chain of masterpieces. It’s Chicago, 1970, and word starts circulating around this close-knit folk music scene that there’s a new guy who must be heard to be believed. A songwriter who seems to have emerged fully formed with a voice like Hank Williams and songs that resound like some miracle collaboration between Woody Guthrie and Hemingway. His name’s Prine, (left). And almost as soon as the Old Town denizens of the Windy City learned of him, the secret was out, and John Prine belonged to the world.
He was then and remains today a genuine song-writer’s song-writer – in that he’s written the kind of songs other song-writers aspire daily to write. Evidence of which is the vast array of covers of his songs by his peers, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, Willie Nelson, and so many others.
Even Bob Dylan, since the first night Kristofferson (right) brought Prine and Steve Goodman into their Greenwich Village fold, has been awed. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” said Dylan. “Beautiful songs… I remember when Kris first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about `Sam Stone,’ the soldier junkie daddy, and `Donald and Lydia,’ where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.” Kristofferson, despite unleashing Prine’s genius on the world, admitted to being intimidated by him. “He’s so good,” Kris said, “we’re gonna have to break his fingers.”
When Prine and Goodman returned to Chicago after landing their deals, a celebration ensued for our local heroes, the entire town welcoming them with warmth and open arms. Unlike other big cities that reject locals who leave to make it big, Chicago has nothing but pride for those who come from our streets and take on the world. We were like astronauts coming back from the moon´´ , Prine said. ´They might as well have thrown a parade for us´.
Prine’s lines are so evocative, so purely precise and finely etched, that they linger in our hearts and minds like dreams, separate from the songs. There’s the rodeo poster from Angel From Montgomery, the hole in daddy’s arm and the broken radio from Sam Stone, the old trees that just grow stronger from Hello In There. The kinds of lines you carry around in your pocket, knowing they’re in there when you need them. His is a prodigious gift for capturing intangibles with language, such as the anomalous texture of Sunday nights he translated into The Late John Garfield Blues or the ennui expressed so purely with the flies buzzing around the kitchen in Angel From Montgomery.
Whether writing about old folks so sorrowfully isolated that people call ´hello in there´ like talking to a kid in a well, or taking on the phenomenon of celebrity through the unlikely subject of Sabu the Elephant Boy, Prine has melded his staggering penchant for detail, his proclivity to be both hilarious and deeply serious (and often in the same song), with a visceral embrace of roots music. And doing so, he’s made the kinds of songs nobody ever dreamed of before, or since.
As a kid his first musical love was country; endlessly spinning the Roy Acuff (left) and Hank Williams 78s in his dad’s collection, and tuning into WJJD out of Chicago to hear Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizell and others ´back to back, all night long´. Roots music with stories to tell, the kind of songs he’d become famous for writing. And then a new kind of music arrived: ´I was coming of age just as rock and roll was invented´. he said like a kid on Christmas, and along with his country heroes he added Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and the one he loved the most, Chuck Berry: “Because he told a story in less than three minutes,” Prine explained. “And he had a syllable for every beat… Some people stretch the words like a mask to fit the melody. Whereas guys who are really good lyricists, have a meter so that the melody is almost already there´.
He started playing guitar at 14 – mostly old folk tunes taught to him by his brother Dave, who gave fiddle lessons. He quickly surmised he could take the same three folk chords and, with a little rhythm, play Chuck Berry, but his limitations then, as they have ever since, led him to his own songs. ´I learned to write because I’d learn to play a Fats Domino song, say, and it wouldn’t sound nearly as good as Fats Domino. So I’d just make up my own melody and write my own words. And anything I made up came out sounding like a folk song, because that was the kind of guitar I learned. If my brother would have been into Chuck Berry, then maybe I would have written all those songs as rock and roll shuffles´.
When he was old enough, he got a job as a postman, which he loved, because he could write songs while walking the familiar blocks. ´It was like a library with no books´, he said. ´When you’ve got your own mail route, day after day, it was an easy place to write´.
For a string of consecutive Sundays he started coming to the open mike nights at the old Fifth Peg, a folk club on Armitage in Old Town (left). When he summoned up the courage to perform, he played his handful of unheard classics –Angel from Montgomery, Hello In There, and Donald & Lydia – and the audience was stunned speechless and forgot to clap. He figured he’d failed: “They just sat there. They didn’t even applaud, they just looked at me. I thought, `Uh oh. This is pretty bad.’ I started shuffling my feet and looking around. And then they started applauding and it was a really great feeling. It was like I found out all of a sudden that I could communicate. That I could communicate really deep feelings and emotions. And to find that out all at once was amazing´.
And from the ´¨ fifth peg´ (right) the word spread like wildfire. When Kristofferson heard Prine and Goodman, he pulled some New York strings and landed them both record deals. The rest is singer-songwriter history. It was 1971, the dream of the Sixties was over and Goodman and Prine emerged with a new kind of song, eschewing the lyrical abstractions of the past to write instead story songs about real people – ´Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree,´ as Dylan put it. Songs with the concrete details and imagery of a novelist, but compounded, like those by his hero Chuck Berry, into three-minute masterpieces.
I spoke to Prine for American SongWriter on a sun-bright Tennessee morning, his voice a low, raspy whisper since his recent bout with cancer and subsequent throat surgery. But his stories were punctuated with frequent laughter – laughter at himself, and at the sad folly of a world he’s written about so well for decades.
Perhaps recognizing that things he’s put off forever, like doing this kind of interview, were worth doing now or never, he took a long time to generously delve into his personal history from the streets of Maywood to Germany to the Chicago folk scene to the nightclubs of New York and beyond. Though talking wasn’t as easy as it once was, he enjoyed rummaging through the rooms of his own memory, which he found easier to do than recalling what happened last week.
´I just gave a long interview yesterday to PBS´, he said, ´so I might get confused. Sometimes it’s hard to separate yesterday from today. Man, it was a great place then. I love going back to Chicago. Man, it was a good amount of fortune. That Steve and I came along when we did, and got into the Chicago folk scene. It was kind of all ready for us´.
It was a great scene for songwriters back then.
It really was. It was just great to see all that blossom. All the people coming from all over, and playing at the open stages at the Earl [of Old Town]. Then Goodman took me to New York and showed me all this stuff that I read about, the clubs, the coffee-houses, that whole scene. And that all sprang both me and Steve’s record contracts. It was really exciting times.
I remember well hearing about you – this mailman from Maywood – and then the first album came out, and every song was a masterpiece. It was a stunning debut. Did you have those songs for a while before recording?
I really started writing when I got out of the army in 1968. And went back to the post office – I had done a couple of years in there before I got drafted. So I went back there to work. Especially when you’ve got your own mail route, day after day, it was an easy place to write. It was like going to a library with no books. You’re afforded to just go do your job, and you don’t really even have to think about it. You know you’re on the right street and you’re at the right house, and you’re putting the mail in the right box. That’s where I wrote a lot of the early songs, walking on the mail route.
I wrote a couple of songs early on, before going into the army. I learned to play the guitar when I was 14. I learned three chords and didn’t bother to [laughs] learn much else. It got to where, if I wanted to learn a song and it had a minor chord in it, and I really wanted to learn that song, then I’d learn it and the first thing I’d do is take the odd chord, as I called it, the one I had never played before – and put it in a new song of mine. Just to see where it would fit. See where you’d have to go emotionally for that to work. People would always tell me about minor chords – when you’re writing a song, to put a minor chord in. For me, it’s like doom, you know. You know somebody’s gonna be extremely sick or die if there’s a character in the song. If it’s a first-person narrative, that you’re gonna go off to war or something. [Laughs] Something bad is gonna happen when the minor chord hits.
That’s funny, because throughout all your songs, there’s hardly one written in a minor key. They almost always start with a major chord.
I wrote in a minor key a couple of times over the years- Mainly just to experiment. Because I always felt that if you start something in a minor key, then you’re already down in the mine. [Laughs] You don’t have to go to the mines, you’re already there. [Laughter] Because you’re in the minor chords.
Do you remember what your first three chords you learned were?
Probably G, C, D. It may have been A, D, E because they’re easier. I shied away from B7 for a long time because it took too many fingers. [Laughs]
Hello In There has that C major 7 chord in it, and has more chords than you ever use.
I remember specifically when I wrote it, I think I had learned recently “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out.” It had about nine chords to it. I learned the song more or less as a lesson so that I could sing and change chords quickly at the same time. And once I did that, I thought, “Gee, I’m gonna write a song with every chord in it I know.” And that’s Hello In There. And I’m still surprised to this day that the chords came out that well and sound as pretty as they do.
Hello In There is about old folks, yet you wrote it as a young man with a lot of insight into what it’s like to be old. Do you remember where it came from?
I just always felt, even when I was a young child, I felt really close to my grandparents. And later when I was a teenager, I just felt like a kinship with older people. And I remember for a short time I had a best friend when I was about 11, he had a paper route and he’d give me a couple bucks to help him with the route. And one of the streets I had had the Baptist Old People’s Home on it. And you’d have to park your bike and go inside with about twenty papers to the room where the people subscribed to the paper.
And some of the people, I guess, they didn’t have many visitors. And to their other friends in the home you were like a nephew or a grandson. I picked up on that and it always stuck in my mind. I guess that’s what it’s like inside of any kind of institution.
I do vaguely remember that I tied it somehow to the first time I heard John Lennon sing Across The Universe. He was already putting a lot of echo on his voice on different songs, you know, experimenting with his voice, I played that song over and over again and it sounded to me like somebody talking to a hollow log or a lead pipe. With that echo.
And I was thinking of reaching somebody, communicating with somebody, like “hello… hello in there…” You know? When I was writing the song, I thought that these people have entire lives in there. They’re not writers, but they all have stories to tell. Some are very, very down deeper than others. See, you gotta dig, you know? And that was all going through my mind when I wrote Hello In There.
I didn’t know what the song was gonna be about, actually, when I came up with “Hello In There.” I knew it was gonna be about loneliness and isolation. I was still very much into using names [in songs]. I was a big fan of Bob Dylan early on, and his song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” was a big model for me. I modeled “Donald & Lydia” after that song. As far as telling a story and having the chorus be the morale to the story. A wider morale than what the story’s saying. Like where the chorus is all-consuming, and a much bigger subject than what you’re detailing.
Yeah, that was much in the same way that any upbeat song I modeled after Chuck Berry, I modelled a ballad after specific songs, and that song of Bob Dylan’s, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll to me was to be held up as a real model for songs, as was a lot of Hank Williams, Sr. songs.
It’s surprising to me to hear the influence of Lennon and also Dylan to some extent, in that many of their songs were quite poetically abstract and surreal, whereas your songs tell clear stories with precise imagery.
Yeah. I don’t know how I made that decision. It’s what I was good at, but I might have thought it was a fault at first. I might have thought I used too many words to discuss a minor detail. But I soon found out that the reason that was on my mind is because that’s what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear what was in somebody’s purse. I wanted to hear that at the time of this emotional thing. I wanted to hear what paintings were hanging on the wall. I wanted to know whether it was a cheap refrigerator. [Laughs] I just did. It was kind of detective work.
You’ve always been one of the best at using pictures as symbols, like the old trees that just grow stronger in Hello In There, or the rodeo poster in Angel From Montgomery.
Yeah. I’m not sure where that came from. But I’m glad it did.
Was Angel From Montgomery also one you wrote during your postman years?
Yeah. That was almost a co-write. With a guy named Eddie Holstein.
I knew Eddie. And his brother Fred.
God, sure. I knew Fred since I was 14 and was first going to the Old Town School, Fred used to work part-time in the store. Every time I wrote a song Fred would turn on his really good high-class tape recorder, reel-to-reel, and record it. So he’s got recordings of me on guitar singing all my songs in his apartment long before I ever recorded for a recording company. I never found out what happened to the tapes.
But Eddie and me, we used to go to lunch together because I used to like to watch Eddie eat. He’d eat for hours. And he was just a little skinny guy then, and you’d wonder where the food was.
Eddie said, “Why don’t we write a song together?” And I said, “Jeez, I’ve never written with anybody. But I guess we could try.”
So we went over to his apartment, and I said, “What do you want to write about?” And he said, “I really like that song you wrote about old people, let’s write another song about old people.”
I said, [laughs], “I can’t, Eddie, I said everything I wanted to in ‘Hello In There,’ I can’t do it.”
So I thought for a while and said, “How bout a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is.”
And Eddie goes, “Naw.” [Much laughter]
But the idea stuck with me, and when I went home I started “Angel From Montgomery” that night. With the words “I am an old woman named after my mother.” I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands, and just walking away from it all. So I just kept that whole idea image in mind when I was writing the song and I just let it pour out of that character’s heart.
Again, I didn’t realize all this at the time, but if you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented. You let the character write the song. You just dictate from then on. You stick to it, and whatever the character is saying, you have to figure out how to keep that in the song. You know? That’s how I do it. I almost go into a trance. Once I’ve got an outline, a sketch in my mind, of who the person was, then I figure I’d better let them speak for themselves. Rather than me saying, “Hey, so here’s a middle-aged woman. She feels she’s much older.” It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
I got asked years later lots of times how I felt I could get away with writing a woman’s song first-person. And that never occurred to me, because I already considered myself a writer. And writers are any gender you want. You write from the character and how can you go wrong?
But there aren’t a lot of songwriters, outside of Broadway, who write effectively in character. You do it, and Randy Newman does.
I love the way Randy does it. The character stuff, so determined that they believe what they’re saying. I got to tour with Randy a lot early on. We did a lot of shows together, just him on piano and me on guitar.
You’re similar not only that you’re great at character songs, but also can be funny in songs, which isn’t easy. You’re both very serious and very funny.
Yeah. For me, I find humour in just about every situation. Even the most serious situations. And I find if you use it right, it allows the listener not to feel so uncomfortable. Or to even empathize with that character.
With Angel From Montgomery, do you remember where the title came from or why you placed it in Montgomery?
No, I can only guess like other people. I’m so far away from myself; I’m removed when I’m writing.
Eddie always kidded around and told people, “Yeah, I wrote half of that and John just bought me lunch.” [Laughter]
Eddie thinks I got it from the angel down on Michigan Boulevard [in Chicago]. There was evidently a gargoyle that came out from the Montgomery Wards building. But I’m prone to think that it’s because I was a huge fan of Hank Williams, Sr. (left) and I knew he was from Montgomery. And I think that’s where I thought the woman was from in this image that I had, this woman with the soapsuds on her hand. She lived in Montgomery, Alabama and she wanted to get out of there. She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from all this. And her memory of this cowboy she had once – or whether she had him or not – it doesn’t matter now.
Yeah, you’re not only in her real life, but in her dreams, in what she’s yearning for.
Yeah. Man, they did a book of the famous poster people here in Nashville, the ones who did those giant posters of Hank Williams and the Grand Ol Opry and everything. They’re still going today with the original presses. It’s a great place to go. It’s not far from the Ryman Auditorium. They put a book out of their famous posters. And the poster on the cover is a poster of a rodeo, a guy with a bunking bronco and it’s got the words to the beginning of “Angel from Montgomery” on it. And it’s a really good looking poster. I asked them to give me a copy of it. It looked very much like whatever I had in mind when I wrote it.
I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks. Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you just draw the foundation. I still tend to believe that’s the way to tackle it today.
Whenever I co-write with people – and it’s very difficult to dodge co-writing in Nashville [laughs] – I tell people I’m just trying to write with myself right now, and it’s very difficult to jump back and forth between the two. Because I enjoy co-writing when it’s with the right person. I can go into a different head with a co-writer. Let them take the song on and I’m just helping them with their idea. But if I’m gonna write my idea, I want to stick with it myself. I usually won’t be the one to initiate a co-write.
The old cliché for writers is “write what you know.” Yet you seem to reach beyond your own personal experience often. A song like Sam Stone, about a man who comes back from Viet Nam a junkie, is that someone you knew?
Well, I had just gotten out of the service myself. I got drafted with about six of my best friends, and some of them got sent to Viet Nam. Everyone I knew, they got back, they came back. I knew two kids I went to school with who didn’t come back from Viet Nam. In fact, they didn’t last a week there. But my own personal friends, they all came back. But there were big changes in their lives. And there are still to this day.
I remember when they first came back, whenever it seemed appropriate, I would question them about how it was there. I pretty much got the same story from everybody, that it was pretty much a wait and see situation over there. You could be in a place in Viet Nam where there seemingly wasn’t much action, you weren’t anywhere near the front. But it soon became evident that there was no front. There was always a front as far as if we made an invasion or they did and there was a battle going on, there was that.
But the whole place was the front. You could be walking over to the officer’s club for a drink some night and step on a mine. Or nothing would happen for six months, there wouldn’t be a sound, and all of sudden you’d be walking around and they’d come over and bomb. And that kept you on edge, I guess, all the time.
I always thought one of the great mistakes they made in the service, I don’t know if they even tried to correct it with the guys coming back from the Middle East, but if they spent half the time that they do getting you ready, and the intensity that they put you through in basic training for combat, if they spent half that time bringing you down and teaching you how to be a civilian, it would make a big difference. I would liken it to a person who has done prison time. They all speak of, especially if they’ve been in for a very long time, of how difficult it is to be back on the street. And how difficult it is be to accept freedom once you get used to living incarcerated. So all my friends that were over there were affected, like I said. I wasn’t writing about anybody specific. I made up the character of Sam Stone, obviously, just cause he rhymed with ‘home’.
But I remember a story in the papers about some soldiers coming home from Viet Nam in San Francisco they landed. And some people at the airport – I don’t know if they were protesters or hippies, or what – but they were spitting on them. Saying they shouldn’t be over there killing babies and stuff. And I was totally repulsed by that. And here, mainly, I was against the way. And I was for all the hippies and didn’t mind burning the flag and stuff, you know? [Laughs] I mean, to blame a soldier – maybe because I was one – I felt like, gee, you don’t know what you’re talking about. To blame the guys who are going over there. Because they didn’t run to Canada and say they’re not gonna fight for their country. But that just seemed really awkward and stupid to me.
So I wanted to explain through a fictional character what it might be like to come home. Not to be there, because I was never in Viet Nam. I was stationed in Germany. And I was drafted at a time when most people were being sent to Viet Nam, and I thought I was going there for sure. But when the day came that they gave me orders to go overseas, I was thankful for it. Whereas other guys who got sent to Germany, as soon as they got there, they put in for Viet Nam. They didn’t want to be in Germany, they wanted to be in combat. And I’d just say [laughs], “You guys are nuts.” [Laughs] It’s not John Wayne time.
I had my guitar over there, though I didn’t do much writing. I was about three bunks down from a guy who sang beautiful Lefty Frizell songs. He could sing just like Lefty. And he and I became fast friends. I sang Hank Williams songs and he sang Lefty songs. I think Aw Heck might have been the only song I wrote while I was over there.
Songs like Sam Stone and Angel From Montgomery are such mature, sophisticated songs for a beginning songwriter to write. Any idea how you were able to write at that level so early on?
No, I don’t. I was very nervous about singing the songs in public for the first time. Because I thought that they would come across as too detailed, too amateurish. Because I hadn’t heard anybody being that detailed. And I thought there must be a reason for that. I must not be doing it the right way, whatever the right way is. But I knew the songs were very effective to me. And they reached me. And I was very satisfied with the songs. But I didn’t know how they would relate to other people because I didn’t consider myself a normal person. [Laughter]
Audiences seemed to take to them right away. They were very effective. The first crowd just sat there. They didn’t even applaud, they just looked at me. I thought, “Uh oh.” [Laughs] I thought, “This is pretty bad.” I started shuffling my feet and looking around. And then they started applauding and it was a really great feeling. It was like I found out all of a sudden that I could communicate. That I could communicate really deep feelings and emotions. And to find that out all at once was amazing. Whereas it would have been different if I would have written a novel or something and waited two years till somebody to write me back. And said, “I think we’re gonna take a chance and publish it.” That must be a whole different feeling. But mine was immediate. It was there before other people. Nobody knew me from Adam.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yeah. I think I wrote two at the same time. I had a girlfriend whose father was a janitor. And the reason I’m telling you that is because he had access to a tape recorder, and nobody else I knew had one. They were really rare. A reel-to-reel. He got it from the language department. It was broken and he fixed it and had it at home. And I sat down and taped three songs for this girl and her sister. And the three songs were “Frying Pan,” “Sour Grapes,” and “Twist & Shout.” And I know I didn’t write “Twist & Shout.” [Laughter] Those were the three, and I made her a present of them.
Years later, I ended up marrying that girl. She was my first wife. She found the tape. It was after I had made the first album, so I put two of those songs on Diamonds In The Rough. And those were the first songs I remember writing.
When you started writing those songs, was your intention to become a professional musician?
No, because I didn’t think that kind of thing happened to people like me. [Laughs] I thought that people that you heard records by were from a whole other world. No matter what their biography says, they’re either French or from Britain or had rich relatives. [Laughter] And therefore I wrote the songs more for myself.
I was surprised that the songs connected as well as they did when I first sang them for an audience. I think I was more surprised than the audience. I just got the nerve up behind a couple beers one night to stand up onstage – cause it was an open mic – and the competition, the bar, was very low. It was The Fifth Peg, which was across the street from the Old Town School when it used to be on West Armitage. Before that it was on North Avenue. And there was always a club that the people from the Old Town School frequented. When they were on North Avenue, it used to be the Saddle Club. Which was a couple of blocks from The Earl. And when they moved over to Armitage, this club, the Fifth Peg, opened up across the street and featured folk music, and that would be the club where the people would gather after the classes. But the link was always the Old Town School.
I was writing these songs totally myself not thinking that anybody was going to hear them. And I went from that to being a very nervous public performer. Who had no voice whatsoever. I would kind of speak the words. Very fast or very slow, depending on how the melody went. And I’d hold certain notes [laughs] to let people know I was going to the next idea. And that’s about how limited it was. It was very painful for me to stand up in front of people and sing.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed singing. I would sit for hours just by myself and just bellow out and beat on the guitar. I loved the actual act of singing. But to listen to myself on tape or to sing for other people was really painful. And the first time people heard me [laughs], evidently they felt the same.
photo book Steve Goodman was an amazing performer. I think Steve had arrived, except for timing. He really worked hard, and he was entertaining. He and another friend who played piano for me had an act before Steve was a single act. It was almost like Chad Mitchell trio stuff.. Steve did everybody else’s songs before he ever wrote City Of New Orleans. I read the entire Clay Eals´ book [Steve Goodman, Facing The Music] so I should know. No kidding, man. The amount of people he interviewed for that book was amazing.
Did you learn much about performing from watching Steve play?
Jeez, the way he handled an audience, you couldn’t help but pick up things. I might not have thought about it like that at the time. I developed my own thing from my own mistakes. What I considered my mistakes. My own nervousness. I made it an asset. That’s how I started talking between songs. And I found out that people liked the stories I was telling – they were just totally out of pure nervousness – I was trying to kill time till I had to start singing [laughs] those painful notes again. I put the two together – the talking and the singing – and noticed that worked.
You just find out things from your own shortcomings. It’s easy to say in hindsight, of course, and I never would have said this at the time, I didn’t think so, but that’s what I did – I gathered all my shortcomings and made them into the stronger points, you know, the points I could stretch cause they worked. You find out real fast when you stand just in front of twelve people what’s working or not. Sometimes it’s just the way you present it that makes it not work. It’s got nothing to do with the material.
Do you generally have an idea in mind before you start writing a song?
Yes. Because otherwise I don’t see any reason in sitting down [laughs] to do it. A lot of time I’ll have the song written and I only write it down so I don’t forget it. I could write behind a steel mill. But it’s easier to get behind a guitar. Sometimes lines come so easily that you check yourself, you know? And the more you travel, the more I’ve been around music – like when you’ve been around 40 years around other songwriters’ music constantly – I go down to the grocery store and people drop CDs in my pocket — and so when I do get something, I got to check and make sure I didn’t hear that somewhere. And when I’m sure, I proceed, and I take whatever the image or the line is, I take that and I don’t try to fix it. I check it like a diving board, you know? And it’s like I’m gonna go swimming in their pool today.
Is it easy for you to get to that place where songs start coming?
No. It’s very elusive. Patience. You gotta learn patience. I know that I’m basically a very lazy person. At everything, including writing. As much as I enjoy writing, I would rather do anything in the world but sit down and write. But once I get into it, I’m into it. I mean, if you said, “Let’s go get a hot dog first,” I would always go for the hot dog. I wouldn’t go, “No, let’s finish this song.” [Laughter] I’d say, “Sure!” [Laughter] And I know that about myself. So I have to balance out my patience waiting for the right thing to come along with my laziness, knowing I’m trying to avoid working.
So you never force yourself to write?
No. [Laughs] No. Unfortunately a lot of your best first-person songs come from a person’s relationship, from something awful happening, like in your life, to someone you love very much. So you wouldn’t want to force those thing. Not for the purpose of a good song. Some guys I’ve met, I wouldn’t put anything past them. [Laughs] Some people, for a good song, might go through all kinds of changes to get to that.
Your songs seem to suggest you are having fun writing them, with the rhymes and the rhythms
Once I get into it. And I almost need, not someone standing over me, I do need some prodding. I have to realize, jeez, okay, it’s been long enough without a record. Because I can afford just to go play my songs for big crowds. I play in some of the nicest places in this country. And they got nice dressing rooms. I’ve moved up to where the dressing rooms actually don’t have rats running around in them. It’d be very easy to just keep doing that. But every once in awhile, I’ve got to write and get myself into a fresh state of mind. And I have to look forward, cause I know it’s gonna take a couple of years to process.
I don’t write ten songs in two weeks and go into the studio. I just don’t do that. I’ll write three songs and love them, and I’ll go sing them for a year and then write the next three. I just know how I am. Like I say, there’s nobody standing over me. I’ve got my own record company, my own publishing. I try and make a place for myself to write that I want to go to.
Having written such amazing songs right from the start, was there a sense after your first album that you had a lot to live up to?
Only after so many people told me that so many times. [Laughter]
As I read the above interview again for this Sidetracks And Detours piece I felt the two protagonists were working together as tightly to produce an insightful interview as two song-writers would to create a song. That Mr. Zollo could casually slip in some knowledge of his own to nudge things along made it a great read for me.
Dee and I went to see John Prine play The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester just a couple of years before he died, and unwell and unfit as he was he gave an incredible performance. One of the top three concerts I´ve ever seen.
Although I have all his albums and listen to them frequently the names of Townes Van Zandt, John Stewart, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Chip Taylor usually trip off my tongue in any post-gig afterglow of some great music, but why that is I´m not sure. When I was regularly facilitating my own models of creative writing course throughout the northwest of the UK in the last twenty five years of the twentieth century I would often use lyrics by Townes or John or Guy or Nanci to illustrate some lyrical technique or other, but whenever I introduced my students to the work of John Prine I was nearly always doing so to illustrate a literary technique rather than lyrical.
That said, the hole in daddy´s arm is a line that is a brilliant example of ´show don´t tell´ and all the points Mr. Zollo makes about Prine´s precise attention to detail are fine examples, too.
It was almost certainly Pete Benbow, a fine singer and player himself on the UK folk scene, who introduced me to the music of John Prine several decades ago, probably with his version of Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness.
I never got to interview John Prine as I did some of my other heroes. But because Paul Zollo captured the man perfectly in an engaging interview I can simoly shrug and say ´that´s the way world goes round, it’s a half an enchilada and you think you´re gonna drown !¨
Not least among Prine´s skills was the ability to deliver such a perfect Mondegreen, andt thanks to his legacy of great songs and his responses to some intelligent queries from the editor and writer at American-Songwriter editor and writer John Prine´s music will endure for perpetuity,
We would like to remind readers that will be a post on the two days of this weekend and as part of a stock-taking exercise. So tomorrow, we will look at at New Year traditions here on Lanzarote, and on Sunday we will take the opportunity to preview some excellent pieces of Jazz In January taking place throughout the UK next month, as well as a guide to what we will be seeing during the month long 38th annual classical music festival of The Canary Islands.
Meanwhile we wish all our readers and contributors our thanks and best wishes for a Happy New Year.
The primary source for this article was written by Mark Beaumont for The Independent.
In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.
This article was collated by Norman Warwick (right) , a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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