Interviews and Encounters with John Prine
Edited by Holly Gleason
Reviewed by Dwight A. Moody
This is the first book about John Prine to come out after his death on April 7, 2020. He died in the hospital at Vanderbilt University, from complications of COVID.
I had never heard of him, but millions had, and several had written about him. In 2017, his own publishing firm Oh Boy Records put out a book of pictures (mostly candid) and hand-written (or typed) scripts covering the whole of Prine’s career, roughly 50 years. Beyond Words, by John Prine. No editor is listed. Of the 65 songs covered in the book, I am familiar with 59, and I note that one of my favorite—“Everybody”—is missing. Mostly this is archival material, random stuff from his life as a writer and singer.
In 2021, two books were published. Erin Osmon wrote her little book, simply titled John Prine, a biography of sorts, part of a series called 33 1/3. It was number 160 in the series on various artists (famous people like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, and Celine Dion, but mostly people and subjects foreign to me). It was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Osmon teaches at the University of Southern California.
Then, or perhaps before—who knows—a lawyer in Philadelphia published his review of all 18 John Prine albums, with roughly one page of text for each song. Bruce Rits Gilbert is his name, with editorial work by Tess Gunty. It appears to be self-published, something I have done more than once. I need to re-read this book.
There may be other John Prine books out there, but these are the ones I know about and have read. Now comes Holly Gleason and her collection of material.
It is a collection because she gathered 39 articles, either written about John Prine over the course of his career or transcripts of interviews with John Prine. These include the famous career-launching newspaper piece by Roger Ebert (1970) and pieces by even more famous people, such as Studs Terkel (1975), Billy Bob Thornton (2001), and John Mellencamp (2016).
Four of these are articles Gleason herself wrote, which is a good thing because she is an excellent writer. I am not far wrong to confess that the best parts of this book are the editorial introductions to each article, all written by Gleason. Like John Prine himself, Gleason can turn a phrase: “patron saint of the unwanted and the unlikely” (xix), “wisdom…tempered by wonder” (293), and, unknowingly alluding to me: “John Prine was a part of so many people’s lives over the years. Here, someone who came to him later and found the same truths and joys speaks to his endurance” (313).
I came to John later, in June of 2020, prodded by a friend in Birmingham. I listened to the tribute video somebody posted on social media. I was converted, baptized, and filled with the spirit that very night; I have never turned back.
The nature of the material in this book means much of it is repeated. The famous story of his discovery by Roger Ebert and Kris Kristofferson is told at least a dozen times; there are 38 references to Kristofferson listed in the index. It is a great story and worthy of repetition. Also, it illustrates so well the humbleness that accompanied Prine throughout his career, always so surprised that people listened to his music and celebrities considered him worthy of imitation. “He is a sweet-natured, self-effacing, rumpled pudge of a man,” one interviewer wrote (165) and rightly so.
As a Kentuckian who has made pilgrimages to both Rochester Dam and Paradise, just a few miles from my dad’s growing up place (Tom Moody was baptized in the Green River!), I was drawn to all the references to my home state.
Also, religion: I have an interest in the religious roots of his lyrics. Prine describes the Christian heritage of his parents, in Baptist and Methodist churches in Kentucky. But: “When they got up North, … they didn’t go [to church]. Going to church in the South was like … everybody sees each other. They all eat and sweat and sing and it’s terrific…. So, we were raised to … talk about religion…. You see it’s difficult for me to ever listen to someone talk about it, let alone talk about it myself. People talk about any organized religion…. I can hardly relate” (52).
But somewhere along the way, he had his engagement with organized religion: Concerning the song “Chain of Sorrow” he said to one writer, “So it was just a vivid memory I had, and I put it together with how I felt about my job as an altar boy. I was supposed to be the maintenance man at church, and they were short an altar boy. They baptized me and confirmed me on a Saturday. Sunday I was wearing a robe, lighting a candle” (152). Later he confessed: “I’m not Catholic. I’m not Jewish” (230).
A few other things caught my attention: his cancer treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; the passing references to marriage and divorce; and how often interviewers asked him some version of the questions: “Where do your lyrics come from? What triggers your imagination? What is your pattern of song-writing?” Answering those questions is a book in itself!
Which I just might do—I wrote another Prine fan this week (after the both of us were seen in the Ryman attending the second (annual?) birthday concert (October 10). I confessed my surging interest in writing a full biography. But, I’ll need more than a inspiration. I’ll need this book, and the three others I described above, and a whole lot of research. But anybody who actually does this will give thanks for Holly Gleason every day of their research and writing.
I will be the first: thank you, Holly!