Q&A with John Prine
The route from Maywood mailman to Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter
For close to half a century, John Prine has ridden the waves of a changing music market with an impressive resilience and an ever-richer songbook. Named by Rolling Stone as one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters, his music is a mix of country, folk and rock-a-billy, underwritten by a beguiling three-chord simplicity. Born and raised in west suburban Maywood by parents from small-town Kentucky, Prine entered the military after high school and was stationed in Germany. His thoughts, though, were with those in Vietnam and he would later become known for anti-war songs like "Sam Stone" and "Flag Decal." Returning stateside, Prine worked as a mailman in Maywood. Early songs, like “Hello in There,” were written while delivering the mail to Maywood homes. A clue to Prine’s enduring popularity is his uncanny ability to articulate the thoughts of ordinary people in song. Lyrical storylines intertwine with playful humor and the outcome resonates with honesty and a rare emotional connection. Prine's new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in early summer by his independent label, Oh Boy Records, located in Nashville, the city he now makes home.
Which memories of growing up in Maywood stand out for you?
My three brothers and I all went to Proviso East High School. My Dad had gone there too for his last two years of high school. I had a great childhood growing up in Maywood. I knew every corner of the place. Strutzel’s Root Beer Stand was the best!
Did you have other favorite Maywood haunts as a teen or young musician?
As a teen I would go to Maywood Pool Hall across from the police station. And we would all hang out at the Primrose and the Seville. After high school we would go to the El Morocco Lounge in Stone Park and hang downtown at the folk clubs.
“Your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven anymore,
It’s already overcrowded,
From your dirty little wars.
Well, Jesus don’t like killing,
No matter what the reason for,
And your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven anymore.”
— John Prine, 1971
When did you first pick up the guitar and write your first song?
My oldest brother, Dave, taught me three chords on the guitar when I was about 14. He was teaching himself to play fiddle and needed someone to play rhythm for him. I believe I wrote my first songs in that first year after I learned to play.
How did you first get involved in the Chicago music scene?
I took lessons at The Old Town School of Folk Music and I played at the Maywood Folk Fest in 1969. Nobody knew who I was. My first paid show was at the Fifth Peg on West Armitage.
Songs like “Paradise” and “Sam Stone” tell such vivid stories. Have you always been a storyteller?
I was a terrible student in high school but could always get an A when the teacher asked us to write a narrative or dialogue. Those assignments always came easy to me. I learned to tell stories on stage when I was tuning my guitar because I was really bad at tuning so I had to kill time. Turned out, the audiences liked my stories!
Where does your sense of humor come from?
I think I got it from my family. My mother came from a really big family back in Kentucky and they would all tell stories about growing up there. We would entertain ourselves listening to all those stories.
Which usually comes first, the lyrics or the melody?
Usually the lyrics and melody arrive together. Sometimes the words come first and will bring the melody with them.
From listening to your early albums and some bootleg recordings, you played with some of the greatest Chicago musicians. Who did you most enjoy playing with?
Steve Goodman. Steve was not just a fellow musician — he was a really good buddy. I used to hang out and play with Bonnie Koloc and Eddie Holstein, too.
You’ve been on stage or recorded with some of the biggest names in music. Can you share a couple of memorable moments?
It was a lot of fun getting to make a video with Tom Petty (“Picture Show”). He was a great guy. Springsteen jumped up on stage with me at a show in Terrytown, New York. That was a lot of fun, too.
Your songs have been recorded by some of the biggest names in the music industry. Do you have favorite covers?
I will always love Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel from Montgomery.” Miranda Lambert does a killer version of “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.” She starts out a lot of her shows with that song. George Strait covered “I just Wanna Dance with You”— it’s pretty great, too!
“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder every day,
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,
Hello in there, ‘Hello.’ ”
— John Prine, 1971
You’re in the middle of a major national and European summer tour. Do you still enjoy touring?
Yeah, I do. I can pretty much set my own schedule now. Touring with this new record means we will be busier than usual but the shows are going really well and I’m enjoying singing new songs for the fans.
Do you prefer the larger venues or smaller theaters?
I like theaters — there are some gorgeous ones around the country now. Older venues that have been completely refurbished. I usually play anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 seats.
Tell our readers about the new album. What should we expect?
I had a great time making this record. I got to record at the old RCA Studio A (in Nashville). My producer, Dave Cobb, gave me the very best record I could imagine at this time. It didn’t feel like work at all. I hope the fans can hear in the music that we had a wonderful time making it.
“That’s the way that the world goes round
You’re up one day, the next you’re down
It’s a half-an-inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown,
That’s the way that the world goes round.”
— John Prine, 1978
Which musicians inspired you when you were starting out?
Hank Williams, the Carter Family, Bob Dylan, Elvis, the Beatles . . .
How about now?
Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price are all great writers and performers. They’re good friends and I love to get to sing with them.
Do you have advice for young songwriters just starting out?
Stay true to what you have inside you. Don’t write something because you think it’ll be a hit or what you think others might want to hear. And perform in front of an audience every chance you get — even if it’s only a handful of people.
When you’re back in Chicago, do you ever make it out to Maywood?
Yeah, I do often take a drive out there. My old house where I grew up is still there, I think. I’d love to buy that old place but I don’t know who it belongs to now. The neighborhood has definitely changed but parts of it still look the same.
Three words that best describe you?
Lazy, crazy and sweet
Luke’s Beef or Johnnie’s?
What song do you play to please the crowds?
Favorite song to play right now?
“Summer’s End,” from my new record. Best venue to play? I always love playing at The Chicago Theatre and the Ryman in Nashville.
Do you have a favorite guitar?
The custom Martin D28 they made for me.
What will you always find in your pockets?
Money, a pocket knife, and a guitar capo and thumb pick.
Do you have a good luck charm for going on stage?
Nothing crazy. I like to have photos of my family on the table on stage, and an old quarter, dime, nickle and penny, though nobody knew about that until recently.
If you could spend half an hour on a park bench with a fellow musician, who would it be?
I’d love to have sat with Hank Williams, Sr.