John Prine's wit has been an enormous part of his appeal since he first started making records in the early 1970s, but his reputation as a wise-ass works against him, too. The singer/songwriter, who's performing tonight at the Tennessee Theatre, is hardly underappreciated, but he's not generally regarded as being in quite the same songwriting class as some of his more innovative or "serious" contemporaries: Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt.
It's not a clear-cut distinction--"Angel From Montgomery," one of Prine's earliest and most enduring masterpieces, is a dark, sad fable of fading dreams. But favorites like "Dear Abby," "Fish and Whistle," and most of his great 1991 album The Missing Years tag Prine as something of a high-minded and artful version of Jimmy Buffett, his sarcastic observations wrapped up in clever wordplay and jokes. At its best, his humor and his depth are inseparable, as in "Christmas in Prison," "Yes, I Guess They Ought to Name a Drink After You," and "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities."
Part of the difficulty of making full sense of Prine is the rootlessness of his music. Unlike Dylan, Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Hank Williams, Prine's Midwest folk doesn't dig into old American music traditions like country, the blues, or old-time music. It's a straightforward, cosmopolitan, and thoroughly modern and urban folk, deceptively sophisticated, and without the formal self-awareness that marked the '60s folk revival or the Texas songwriting scene of the 1960s and '70s. All of which makes him easy to overlook or pass over, and that's too bad--he's been as consistently brilliant an American songwriter over the last 40 years as anybody could ask for.
Photo by Jim Shea.