The year was nineteen seventy-one. A former mailman from Illinois released an album on Atlantic records, self-titled, John Prine. The songs were narrative — filled with empathy for his characters. Sam Stone, the drug addicted veteran; Hello In There, a song about aging; and Paradise, the town that was taken away by the coal company. Paradise was also the name of the neighborhood I grew up in in West Baltimore.
Jeni and I got to see John Prine interviewed today at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum by Nashville’s own Peter Cooper. Prine was much shorter than I remembered, although anyone will look short next to Peter. He might very well be the tallest singer/songwriter/ journalist in Nashville. Prine had the very guitar that he wrote those early songs on back in Maywood, Illinois. It looked like a dreadnought.
Humor was flying around the place with Prine piloting the stage. Later in the interview he said that, “Life is humorous.” He spoke about one of the first songs he wrote, “Frying Pan.” A song about a woman who left her husband and left the good-bye note in the frying pan because she knew that that would be the first place he would go when he got home from work. He said his limited style of playing came down to two ways, slow and fast.
That reminded me of the primitive partner that I travel and sing with, Miss Jeni Hankins. Only difference being Jeni’s two modes of playing are slow and slower.
In nineteen seventy-one I was in high school, the eleventh grade. I had been playing the guitar for a couple of years and was playing a lot of folk and country music. The town of Ellicott City was just four miles west of Paradise and many of my friends lived there in a smaller community on the east side of the Patapsco River called Oella. Many of the folks who lived in Oella had come to Baltimore for work from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They worked in the mills. And they loved the Appalachian music and introduced me to it. My friends loved the music of John Prine and I really wished that they could have all been there today at the Hall to hear and see Prine speak about his journey. We would gather in Oella at the bottom of Holler Road and sing John Prine songs at the little country church. Robbie , T.G. , and Frazier to name a few.
On the weekends I would drive my 1960 Rambler over to Oella because on a clear night I could pick up the Grand Ole Opry on the AM radio up near the Westchester Elementary school. Oella had a bit of altitude compared to the inner harbor of Baltimore. I would listen to as much music as I could back then. And the John Prine debut release was one that I wore out.
Prine spoke about one of the first music venues he played in Chicago, the Fifth Peg. He said he played Sam Stone, Hello In There, and Paradise and the people were speechless. He wasn’t sure if they loved it or hated it.
He spoke about how his characters were vehicles to express the way he was feeling. He said he wrote songs while on his mail route delivering the mail. He said that there wasn’t much to it, “Once you know you’re on the right street.” He shared a story about the song, Angel From Montgomery. He was asked to do some co-write by Eddie Holstein. Eddie had heard his, Hello In There, and when Prine asked him, “what would you like to write about?” Eddie said let’s write a song about old people. Prine said, “I’ve already done that, how about a song about a middle aged woman who feels old?” Eddie said, “I don’t want to do that,” and Prine went home and wrote the song all by his lonesome. He spoke about how gender doesn’t really matter when it comes to songwriting. The opening line from Angel From Montgomery is, “I am an old woman, named after my mother.” An example of a character he made up to put across his feeling about women who were ignored by their husbands.
In Oella, at the bottom of Oella Ave was a drinking establishment called, The Valley View. It was right next to the river. The locals called it, The Bloody Bucket. The jukebox featured songs by Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb, Freddy Fender and Willie Nelson to name a few. In nineteen seventy-five I got a gig to sing at the Valley View and asked my friend, Jack, to play bass with me. Neither of us had ever played there so we were both excited and petrified at the same time. We thought the idea of singing songs for pay, twenty five bucks, and all your drinks complimentary sounded mighty nice.
We were to play from nine to one. I’m pretty sure we did a number of repeats because we didn’t know enough songs to play that long. There wasn’t a stage so we just played in a corner of the barroom. There were maybe twenty people there that night. Sometime later in the evening there was a bit of a scene. A man and a women were having an argument and the guy started shoving the woman. My friend, Jack, walked over and tried to make peace and got himself into a mess. I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened at the time but when our last set came around. Jack was no where to be found. I had to end up doing the last set solo. At the end of the night I packed up our guitars and still had no idea what had happened to Jack. I started up the Rambler and headed east back to Paradise. The Washington Flour Mill was directly across the street. There was a guard rail because of the parking lot for the mill workers. There was a patch of grass just this side of the guard rail and I noticed someone lying by the side of the road. I stopped the car and it was Jack. I helped my friend up and got him into the car. He was hurting pretty badly. The couple had both turned on Jack and beat him up. That was the last time we ever played at the Bloody Bucket.
I perform now with Jeni and Billy and fortunately we get paid more. I wish I had that Rambler. I know Jeni would love that car. Last night, we were trying to think of band names for the band that backed us up on our new CD, Picnic in the Sky, coming out this summer. We were both looking in various books and Jeni was looking at this book, All-American Ads from the Fifties. Jeni said, “look at this” and it was an ad for the Rambler.
John Prine’s reading of Angel From Montgomery today reminded me of the woman that Jack tried to help that night at the Valley View. I think the bartender’s name was Dan. He was a friendly person. I think that the folks in the Valley View that night had either grown numb to scenes like the fight or they knew better than to get in the middle of an argument like that. Over the years I’ve always thought that the folks knew the couple and thought it best not to get involved. Too bad Jack had to learn the hard way. It’s one of those things in life that you’re just not sure about what the right thing to do is. It was like a traffic light turned yellow. Some folks just speed up and go on their way and some stop.
Prine spoke about his album, The Missing Years. He said that, Howie Epstein produced the record and built the songs arrangements and production around Prine’s guitar playing. That struck a chord in me, no pun intended, because I’ve wanted to do the same thing with Jeni for years. I love listening to Jeni just sing and play her guitar. It’s like they, her voice and guitar, are one. And she definitely accompanies herself in a most beautiful way. We co-write most of our songs, with Jeni contributing mostly lyrics and my contribution is mostly music. On our new CD there will be a song, The Mill Hurries On, which Jeni wrote alone. It is a well known story about a mill worker who has died because of unsafe working conditions. The character or singer is the ghost of the mill worker who has died. Jeni’s melody is just perfect. And the chords are also. Just three of them. The recording is with our backing band, Little Pioneer (we’re thinking this will be the name of our band), and they just make magic on the recording. I can remember Jeni playing it for me when she first wrote it and I wish I would have recorded it. She had that Prine thing that happens when the writer is singing their own song. It’s pure joy. Even if it is primitive.
Peter Cooper asked him about the song, Jesus, The Missing Years. It closes his recording of the same name. It’s a recitation. He said he’s always liked recitations. He mentioned Hank Williams Sr. as Luke The Drifter. He said the chorus lyrics were unrelated to the song, just some words he had written but hadn’t done anything with. He inserted them in the song just to kind of break up the recitation. He likened it to the end of a Disney record when a voice says, “Turn the record over.” Everyone laughed. He said that they had recorded eleven songs for his Missing Years album and was waiting to hear from Epstein about the mixes and was thinking about the photos for the record when Epstein called him and said, “I think we need one or two more songs for the record.” Prine said he thought he was crazy. He thought, “I don’t have anymore songs in me.” He said, “If they did an autopsy on me at then, they wouldn’t have found any more songs.” Don’t get any ideas Dave. Dave is Dave Way one of our two producers on Picnic In The Sky. Prine said the next day he wrote, “It’s A Big Ole Goofy World.” Thank you Howie Epstein!
And thank you Peter Cooper for a fantastic second introduction to John Prine.
And here’s a link to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. If you dig deep enough you’ll find how to listen to archived interviews.