Priceless Prine brings storytelling genius to Peoria

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One of the best singer-songwriters is the best because of his talent at storytelling: John Prine.

For decades, the one-time Chicago letter carrier has effectively blended observational genius of the past and present with a distinctive internal peace, if not a separate peace.

Prine, 66, who’s scheduled to appear at the Peoria Civic Center Theater at 8 p.m. March 15, has penned a lot of music and lyrics, and most of it is memorable and creditable – he won a Grammy in 2008 – but sometimes his contribution was underappreciated or even overlooked.

Remember his number “Paradise”?

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/down by the Green River where paradise lay?”/”Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

That’s a heartbreaking truth about Kentucky that few investigative journalists could deliver.

His 2010 record “In Person and On Stage” had that number, with vocal help from Kane Welch Kaplin, plus gems ranging from “Saddle in the Rain”  and “Long Monday”  to “Angel from Montgomery” (with Emmylou Harris) and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” (which has become somehow relevant again with the rise of these Tea Party times).

But a personal favorite was his uncredited collaboration with the late Steve Goodman on “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” made famous by David Allen Coe.

The tale’s told that Goodman and Prine wanted to write the epitome of country & western tunes, and its first draft was wonderful – but not perfect. Remember?

“You don’t have to call me Waylon Jennings,/and you don’t have to call me Charlie Pride,/ and you don’t have to call me Merle Haddard anymore/even though you’re on my fightin’ side./And, I’ll hang around as long as you will let me,/ and I never minded standing in the rain,/ but you don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’./ You never even called me by my name.” But after realizing that the song seemed incomplete without references to Mama, trains, trucks, prison, or getting drunk, they added a verse and NAILED it:

“Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison,/ and I went to pick her up in the rain,/ but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got run over by a damned old train.”

Prine’s recorded other live albums, such as 1988’s “John Prine Live” and 1997’s “Live on Tour,” but in concert is better.

Maybe the Peoria show will feature another Prine treasure, “The Other Side of Town,” about an everyday guy dealing with a complaining failed romance:

“My body’s in this room with you just catching hell/ while my soul is drinking beer down the road a spell./ You might think I’m listening to your grocery list,/ but I’m leaning on the jukebox and I’m about half ... way there.

“A clown puts his makeup on upside down/ so he wears a smile even when he wears a frown./ You might think I’m here when you put me down,/ but actually I’m on the other side of town. 

“I’m sittin’ on a chair just behind my ear/ playing dominoes and drinking some ice-cold beer./ When you get done talking I’ll come back downstairs/ and assume the body of the person you presume who cares.”

Internal peace.

Prine is priceless.

Here's some rare home video footage of John Prine and Johnny Cash (et al) performing "Ballad of a Teenage Queen":


About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.