The “Singing Mailman” nears Sacramento
Country-folk legend John Prine returns with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott for Harris Center show Wednesday
Riding on the heels of his first release of original material since 2005 (The Tree of Forgiveness), John Prine returns to the Sacramento area May 23 with an appearance at The Harris Center in Folsom. Prine’s on the West Coast leg of an extensive nationwide tour, and on this date only, another story-telling American treasure, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, joins him as an opening act, not unlike the bill they shared two years ago at the Crest Theatre.
It’s fitting that Prine shares the stage with his old friend. Over the years, many critics have suggested Prine sipped from the folk stream of Woody, Ramblin’ Jack and Bob Dylan with numerous signals appearing early in his song canon. Others surmise Prine was influenced by a more diverse crowd of popular songwriters including John Lennon, Chuck Berry and Hank Williams. Either way, as listeners, we’ve been the recipients of whatever Prine has digested. He gifted us with his wonderful songwriting and performances brimming with humor, memorable characters, and dramatic tales, sometimes with an underlying emotional component that’s as simple as the last time he saw his dad “sitting on the front porch drinking beer, and watching the traffic go by.”
At this show, Prine will surely be drawing heavily from The Tree of Forgiveness, the album that brings together not only the best elements of his songwriting but also a talented group of co-writers, including the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and his contemporaries Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, Keith Sikes and Phil Spector, who contributed a song from the 1970s. Prine’s aged vocal delivery fits with this current batch of songs better than ever. The lyrics are no longer as complex and dramatic as his earlier works. They’re often about simply living (not to be confused with living simply). Somewhere in that mix, you’ll always find a twist of humor or Prine’s observations on the absurdities of life.
In 1971, Prine introduced himself to the world with John Prine, a Grammy Hall of Fame album filled with songs that would endure for decades. Selections from that classic debut have been covered by Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Zac Brown Band and many others. Even on his first record, Prine sounded older than his 24-years, establishing a standard for his life-weary vocal delivery. Forty seven years later, listening to Prine is not unlike sitting with an old friend and hearing some sage advice, and sometimes only at the level of a whisper.
Prine has been called everything from “the Singing Mailman” to the new Dylan. The comparisons to Dylan were inescapable early in his career. In 1973, a New York Times article referred to a brood of new Dylans. Loudon Wainwright reminisced about that Dylan phenomenon much later in his 1992 album History, where he connected with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elliott Murphy, Steve Forbert and Prine.
Prine would go on to join a parade of singers and songwriters that were dominating the radio airwaves in the ‘70s with a string of critically-acclaimed early albums that included Diamonds in the Rough, Sweet Revenge and Bruised Orange.
Prine’s career has not been without its fits and starts. Though his records were difficult to pigeonhole, and producers struggled to find commercial success for the Chicago native, Prine seemed to achieve a modest amount of fame as he carved out an extensive and varied career for himself on his own terms. Prine started his own label, Oh Boy Records, where he continued to release material regularly for the past three decades. High points from that period include a pair of highly rated duet albums he recorded with an all-star cast of female singers, in 1999, In Spite of Ourselves, and 2016’s For Better, or Worse. Both albums are chock-full of smartly produced covers of honky-tonk standards, save for perhaps the single Prine original, the album’s title track on In Spite of Ourselves, featuring the less-than innocent sounding Iris DeMent.
Prine’s new album The Tree of Forgiveness debuted higher on the Billboard 200 chart than any of his previous records, which is either a testament to his ability to add a fresh generation of listeners to his fanbase, or simply a well-deserved late-career resurgence. He’s been everywhere on the Americana and roots music scene lately, and with recent appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, to name just a few, Prine’s music is being enjoyed by more people than ever.
Whether new or old, songs seem to be Prine’s lasting legacy. From his early portrait of a middle-aged Southern housewife in “Angel From Montgomery,” to the more recent understated verses about the world we live in “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” we can only wonder whether Prine wants us to take him seriously or not.