Its not like I didn't have my chances. Most singers I like would name-drop Prine along the way as one of their musical and/or songwriting influences. Yet I ignored the tip. Bonnie Raitt had a hit with Angel From Montgomery, but it wasn't enough for me to pursue more music from the writer of the song.
Finally about 6 or 7 years ago, the suggestion to listen to him was too much to ignore. I introduced a friend/co-worker to Robert Earl Keen and Todd Snider. In turn, he asked me if I'd ever listened to John Prine. When I said he was always on my "to do but never done" list, he helped me out.
For that introduction, I'm eternally grateful. I now have many of his songs/lyrics committed to memory and react like Pavlov's pup when I hear an opening chord or riff. I also quickly added many of his sho-nuff CDs and a few bootlegs to my collection and most recently got his Live from Sessions at West 54th DVD. (Fantastic! Get it.) The man can weave adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors, life and death, hope and hopelessness, humor and despair, and vivid mental pictures in his lyrics as perhaps no one else can - sometimes all within a single song!
The one thing I haven't been able to do since joining the Prine party late was see him live. He performed with Mac Wiseman at Nashville's new symphony hall a couple of years ago in support of their duet CD Standard Songs for Average People, but the tickets for that show sold out quicker than a jack rabbit in heat.
This time, however, I was ready and able to get tickets for last Thursday's show at the famed Ryman Auditorium.
With touring productions having evolved to an alarming excess over the years, it was cool to see the simplicity of the Ryman stage. No fancy lights. No stacks of amps. No drum riser enclosed in a cage or outfitted with hydraulic actuators. No flash pod boxes disguised at the stage's outer edges. Prine had a simple folding table on stage with some of his needs - picks, harmonicas, etc. Dave Jacques' upright bass was just leaned up against a big touring case.
Leon Redbone opened the show for a 40 minute or so set. Though I've heard of him for years, I was more familiar with his iconic image than I was his music. Truthfully yet sadly, I knew him best for his Panama Jack look and his appearance in a Budweiser commercial from over 25 years ago!
Though he speaks a bit softly and a lot nasally, what can be understood was funny. Early in the show, someone shouted out "How's Lulu?" - clearly an inside joke/story I didn't get. Leon paused and smiled. "Well, I ain't seen ol' Lulu in years." He then turned to his accompanist and asked him if he knew the song. When he shook his head to say no, he jokingly said "well, what kind of piano player are you anyway?"
After performing the jazz classic Ain't Misbehaving, he claims he performed it with Hank Williams, Sr. He said his nasally, lower-octave voice couldn't hit those falsetto notes Hank could. He said he wasn't sure if Hank liked the pairing or not. But he thought maybe he didn't because he hadn't heard from him since! (Hank Williams Jr. recorded the song, but I'm not sure Hank Williams, Sr. ever did. Apparently a lot of the stories Leon tells are great entertainment but not exactly grounded in truth.)
As the stage was re-arranged a bit and the headliner came out to a huge applause, another very obvious, striking difference separates Prine from the pretenders. Prine, bassist Dave Jacques, and guitarist Jason Wilbur all wore suits and ties. Very old school. I had noticed this in the DVD I've got, but it was interesting to see the class exhibited live.
With such a rich set list, I found myself singing along to many of John's songs. The songs are just that great, and the pull to sing them was just too strong. I tried to sing under my breath or lay off altogether in case others around me were bothered by it. But when I'd stop, I noticed a constant murmur in the Ryman. Everyone else was doing the same thing!
With a set list like this, can you blame me?
- Spanish Pipedream
- Oldest Baby in the World
- Crooked Piece of Time
- Spend Night With Me
- Grandpa Was a Carpenter
- Fish and Whistle
- Bruise Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
- Glory of True Love (written with Roger Cook)
- All The Best
- Angel in Montgomery
- Jesus, The Missing Years
- The Sins of Memphisto
- That's The Way The World Goes 'Round
- Please Don't Bury Me
- Sam Stone - after plenty of applause, mumbled audience singing, shout-outs, etc., John played this one to a completely silent, almost reverential audience.
- Something about "if you wish on a far east star" - I'll admit I lost this one. Bathroom, fresh beer, and merch table break.
- Saddle in the Rain
- Ain't Hurtin' Nobody
- Hello In There
- Lake Marie
- Encore: Paradise - Prine's brother was introduced to come out and sing alongside him.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the set list, I would have loved to have heard another few favorites. (Who am I kidding? We could have stayed all night and still possibly not heard all of Prine's great material.) One encore wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the audience, but I'm guessing the show was at or beyond the scheduled time. So it was one and done for the encore.
Some songs I had hoped for were Illegal Smile, In Spite of Ourselves, and Milwaukee Here I Come. But as Mick and the boys sing, you can't always get what you want.
The other thing that chewed about the evening was the absence of the very friend who introduced me to Prine's music. We bought tickets to the show some 4 or 5 months in advance. Our plans were still in sync 24 hours before showtime. And then Friday morning hit. He caught some bug from his kids and apparently rolled out of bed only to make it as far as the couch the rest of the day. The ticket wasn't wasted as another mutual friend gladly accepted the use of it. But I hated that Murphy's Law jumped up and bit the very person who had looked forward to the show for so long.
I've now seen Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Todd Snider, and John Prine in a span of about 5 months. Its pretty hard to imagine how the Nashville concert scene is going to top this run over the spring and summer months.