Ain’t the afterlife grand?

I figure the best way to know if a songwriter is any good is by reading what others, particularly other songwriters, have to say about him.

If that’s true, then damn.  John Prine must be one of the best there ever was.

Unknown-259Asked in 2009 to list his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan put Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.  Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.  And he writes beautiful songs.”

Kris Kristofferson, upon discovering Prine in a small club in Chicago in 1971:  “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy.  John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

Close friend and frequent collaborator Bonnie Raitt:  “He was a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain.  For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Jack Antonoff, songwriter/guitarist/singer in the indie rock ban “fun.”, said:  “John Prine is as good as it gets.  An honor to be alive in his time.”

Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “John was a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.  He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

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Music critics can be a fickle bunch, but they have been nearly unanimous in their admiration for Prine over the years.  A few quotes:

Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly:  “John Prine’s best work has always been slightly cinematic and hallucinogenic, full of images that transport as well as provoke.”

Margaret Renkl, a New York Times contributing opinion writer, wrote in 2016:  “The new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

Michael Branch of CNN:  “John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others.”

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post:  “Many journalists loved John Prine because he did what we try to do:  document America.”

The late Roger Ebert, writing about a Prine concert in 1971:  “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off.  He starts slow.  But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics.  And then he has you.”

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Unknown-257By all accounts, Prine was a kind, sweet guy, but he was also one tough cookie.  Despite a lack of much commercial success during his five decades in the music business, he nevertheless persevered, started his own record company (Oh Boy Records) and recorded 18 studio LPs and two live albums.  He was on the road a lot in the early days, and he continued performing well into his ’60s and ’70s as health permitted.  He also survived two major cancer-related surgeries in 1998 and 2013.  But on April 7, he fell victim to the coronavirus.  He was 73.

You’ll all pardon me if I’m kicking myself these days.  I somehow failed to pick up on Prine and his work when he was first starting out in the early ’70s when he wrote and recorded many of his best songs.  I’m pretty sure a couple of my friends in college tried to turn me on to some of his tunes, but I too quickly dismissed him because his gruff voice wasn’t much to my liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing:  Prine’s voice was perfect for the kind of songs he wrote.  Like his inspirations, Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sang in a sometimes-wry, sometimes-bitter conversational style that was perfectly suited to his simple melodies and common-man lyrics.

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Prine’s 1973 LP

I’ve always put Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at the forefront of my list of the greatest lyricists of my lifetime, but I have discovered (after the fact, I’m embarrassed to admit) that John Prine belongs in that exalted group.  He offered such wonderfully keen observations on the human condition, often very concise:

“Just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, but it better, or people will wonder.” 

“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see.”

“We were trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever came first.”

“If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.” 

In these and other examples, Prine often wrote in the first person, sharing his own experiences and fantasies, in turn poignant, angry and whimsical.  But he just as often served as narrator for his fictional and true-to-life tales, putting potent words into the character’s mouths.

A mother speaking to her son about his absent father:  “Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever, he just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.”

An elderly woman referring to her husband:  “My old man is another child that’s grown old.”

An adolescent boy singing about his troubled father:  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Most provocatively, speaking for Jesus:   “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me, Mama.  They don’t like me, bud.”

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His 1991 comeback

Prine echoed the belief many songwriters share when he said, “I felt sometimes I was a conduit, a channel through which songs arrive from an unknown source, maybe God.”

He had periods when songwriting came almost effortlessly.  “Sometimes, a song takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it.  They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around too long, the song is liable to pass you by.”

When major or minor life events occurred, both good and bad, they became fodder for new material. “  After my second divorce,” he said with a chuckle in 1990, “about a month later, the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.”

Prine had a singular approach to songwriting.  “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better.  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist.  Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was.  So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks.  You just draw the foundation.”

In his 1973 song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Prine painted a picture in such a way that listeners could easily insert memories of their own grandfathers:  “”Well, he used to sing me ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and rock me on his knee, and let me listen to radio before we got TV, well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and take me with him too, stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”

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Prine’s 1971 debut

Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

There were two Prine tunes I discovered long ago as cover versions by other artists.  One was “Angel From Montgomery,” recorded by Raitt on her 1974 LP “Streetlights.”  She and Prine sang it together often, most recently at the 2020 Grammy Awards, where he won a long-overdue, well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other one was the heartbreaking “Hello In There,” which Bette Midler recorded for her first album.  In it, Prine described the pain and loneliness that aging brings, and he urged us all to pay attention:  “Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers just grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

I’m sure as hell paying attention now, Mr. Prine.

He left behind an impressive legacy of nearly 200 songs, and you’d be hard pressed to find one you could label a clunker.  His favored genres were country, folk, a little bluegrass and what is now popularly called Americana, and he did them all well. His songs are generally pretty basic, three- or four-chord construction, which makes them easy to learn on guitar, something I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  And they’re easy to sing too, so you can bet they’ll start showing up at occasional singalongs by the fire pit, especially the funny ones.

Unknown-264Take “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from his 1999 album which features duets with some of country music’s best female vocalists.  The song’s blunt lyrics offer a fairly hilarious yet poignant dialog between Prine and Iris DeMent as husband and wife who adore each other but view their marriage quite differently.  Husband:  “She thinks all my jokes are corny/ convict movies make her horny/ she likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when shavin’ her legs/ she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,/ I’m never gonna let her go…”   Wife:  “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/ he ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/ drinks his beer like it’s oxygen/ he’s my baby and I’m his honey/ never gonna let him go…”

Or consider 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a whimsical look at death that now takes on an entirely deeper meaning:  “Please don’t bury me down in that cold cold ground, no, I’d druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around, throw my brain in a hurricane, and the blind can have my eyes, and the deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.”

I see that the new generation of country singers adores Prine with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors do.  Check out this YouTube video of Prine sitting on stage with Kacey Musgraves as she plays a song she wrote called “Burn One With John Prine.”  It’ll bring tears and chuckles in equal amounts.

Rest in Peace, John.  Much obliged for your fine body of work.

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A Spotify playlist of some of Prine’s finest tunes.  Dial ’em up! 

Well, let me tell you that it hurts so bad

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook:  Linda Ronstadt.

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I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this:  “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”

linda-ronstadtLinda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book.  Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt.  John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.”  The great Dolly Parton put it this way:  “Linda can literally sing anything.”

Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything.  In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a Unknown-147degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.

She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself.  I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.

Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers.  “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled.  “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan.  My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy.  My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic.  My aunt preferred classical music and opera.  So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

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Linda at home, 1962

“We sang all the time.  We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.  It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment.  The radio was my best friend.  We picked up plenty of amazing music.  We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio.  We got plenty of songs from south of the border.  I loved them all.”

At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events.  But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.

In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out.  The beatnik dives.  The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists.  The clubs on the Sunset Strip.  And, of course, the Troubadour.

At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices.  “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”

In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said.  “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”

The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written

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Linda in Malibu, 1966

by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.”  Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement.  “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed.  They had an orchestra in there!  I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”

Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys.  The deal was for Linda as a solo singer.  “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums.  Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark.  Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material.  People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”

It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well.  On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her.  Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Tylor’s “In My Reply.”

Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour.  “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh.  “Kris Kristofferson.  James Taylor.  Tim Hardin.  Laura Nyro.  Neil Young.  JD Souther.  Joni.  Jackson.  Elton John!”

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Ronstadt performing at The Troubadour with Jackson Browne (left) and The Eagles’ original lineup

The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band:  A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey.  The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of:  The Eagles.

Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree.  “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said.  “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”

Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on Unknown-144the map.  As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer.  Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up.  “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.

This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”)  that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the Unknown-143’70s.  On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).

She defied convention wisdom several times in her career.  The first time was in 1978 R-1473431-1338954045-8748.jpegwhen she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer.  Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts.  In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.

But no matter, as she had other fish to fry.  First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.

Then came her boldest move.  Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-1983-music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material.  “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther.  “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’  But she did it anyway.”

To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl.  The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers.  Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.”  Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”

Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken.  I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me.  But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson images-86so much!  Can I please come to the sessions?’  When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me.  I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”

Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987.  It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness.  “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.

Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s.  As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also PartonRonstadtHarris,jpgreached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).

In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.

Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s.  She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”  Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

images-88As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”

But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”

At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical.  “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice  There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore.  Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish.  I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”

“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had.  I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”