If you take a quick glance at the Billboard Country albums chart for the second week of October you won’t be surprised to see Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line occupying 2 of the top 3 positions. However, debuting at number 2 is the new album from 70-year-old John Prine, the highest charting debut of his career. This is even more surprising when taking into account that this is Prine’s 24th release and that it was released without great fanfare or a huge promotion budget.
Whilst he has always been a prolific recording artist, his reputation as a songwriter and a thoroughly good guy in the Nashville circles appears now to be universally recognised. This is the second occasion that he has recorded an album of duets with female singers. It’s a follow up to his acclaimed ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’ album which came out in 1999 but didn’t reach the listeners that this new project has to date. It was moderately successful but we guess that his new legion of fans will now be checking it out.
It’s mildly ironic that a legendary songwriter has his biggest hit with an album of covers. We guess that a songwriter certainly knows how to select good songs. He has certainly had the opportunity to attract some of the best female vocal talent available. Only two of the female singers from Prine’s previous duets album are repeated here, his wife Fiona and Iris DeMent who shares vocals on the opening track ‘Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out’. Guest vocalists include Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Morgane Stapleton and Kathy Mattea.
Many will be familiar with the choice of songs on offer. ‘My Happiness’ is the standard that Elvis recorded in his first studio session and was almost taken to number 1 by Connie Francis in 1958 when singles sold in their millions. Prine appropriately performs his version with wife Fiona. He wouldn’t be winning awards for the technical quality of his vocals. The chairs probably wouldn’t turn on ‘The Voice’ but that doesn’t matter. Let’s rejoice that Prine has survived two bouts of cancer and is still having huge commercial success late on his career. It has the deliberately crafted homespun family feel that allows the lyrics to work their emotive magic.
Another song that is actually older than Prine is ‘Falling In Love Again’ which is best associated with Marlene Dietrich. Prine covers this song with Alison Krauss. Again the production is very understated, relying upon the gently strumming acoustic guitars and slides but never distracting from the vocals.
The duets with Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves will inevitably attract most attention and may have raised the profile of the album simply due to the clout that they have in the current Nashville scene. Miranda contributes on Hank Williams’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’. Prine remains faithful to the original country version rather than the Tony Bennett version that topped the charts in 1951. Kacey’s contribution is on the song that is probably best associated with Buck Owens and Rose Maddox, ‘Mental Cruelty’. She considers herself part of John Prine’s “family” and one of his adopted musical daughters so we guess the invitation to duet on his album became a labour of love.
One of Kacey’s first ever songs was a tribute to John Prine which is indicative of the love that his peers have for him in the capital of country music. John Prine’s vocal style is almost conversational. He makes it all sound so damned easy which is the trait that is most associated with someone who knows his craft. He never overshadows his guests’ and the listeners’ joy at discovering the range and diversity of the female vocal talents on display.
One gets the impression that an invitation to sing with John Prine isn’t likely to be refused. It’s an album that would be greatly enhanced by an accompanying DVD. There is a lot of love for Prine and it’s great that an artist with his staying power appears now to be getting his well deserved recognition.
The good news is that Prine is returning to the UK next year. Three dates have been arranged so far.
April 21st 2017 Palladium London
April 23rd 2017 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
April 24th 2017 The Bridgewater Hall Manchester