One of America's greatest singer-songwriters of the past 40 years will be performing Friday night in Monterey.
Multiple Grammy Award-winner John Prine will perform at the Golden State Theatre, with young songwriting talent Justin Townes Earle opening the show presented by the Bay Area's Goldenvoice.
Prine, whose songs such as "Sam Stone," "Angel from Montgomery," "Hello in There," and "Paradise" have become American classics and been covered by too many major artists to be mentioned, but a short list would include Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, the Everly Brothers, John Denver, Kris Kristofferson, Carly Simon, Ben Harper and Joan Baez.
Long considered a "songwriter's songwriter," Prine got such glowing reviews for his first album in 1971 that he was tabbed the "next Dylan," always a backhanded kiss of death for most struggling musicians.
But not Prine. Dylan would show up unannounced to many of his early club shows in New York City, accompanying Prine on harmonica on some of his songs.
And Dylan has always professed an admiration for Prine, telling the Huffington Post in 2009 that he was one of his favorite writers.
"Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism," he said that interview. "Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene.
The late country legend Johnny Cash said Prine was one his favorite songwriters.
"I don't listen to music much at the farm, unless I'm going into songwriting mode and looking for inspiration," he writes in his autobiography "Cash." "Then I'll put on something by the writers I've admired and used for years — Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Guy Clark and the late Steve Goodman are my Big Four."
Even artists in other genres have expressed their admiration.
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and great solo success was asked if he heard Pink Floyd's influence in modern British rock bands such as Radiohead.
"I don't really listen to Radiohead," he said in an interview in Word Magazine in 2008. "I listened to the albums and they just didn't move me in the way, say, John Prine does. His is just extraordinarily eloquent music — and he lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon."
Plus Prine has a backstory that a Hollywood screenwriter would have difficulty in making people buy, even though it sounds like a Prine song in itself.
Prine was a working mailman and aspiring songwriter in the late '60s and early '70s when he would frequent a Chicago club, The Fifth Peg, during its open-mic nights.
One night Prine was challenged by an audience member when he muttered under his breath about the lack of artistry in one of the performers that night. So, as the story goes, Prine got up and cautiously played his song "Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues," which was later retitled "Sam Stone" and became one of his most popular songs.
He got such a rousing reaction that night that he did a few more tunes he had in the bag, but had never played publicly, and the audience ate it up. The club offered him a regular gig on the spot.
But the story doesn't end there. One night a young movie critic stepped into the club and was so struck by Prine's music that he was compelled to write a review for his newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times.
"You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine's quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday," wrote Roger Ebert of that performance. It was Prine's first major review and obviously not his last positive one.
"I knew from the moment I heard him how good he was," Ebert wrote in 2004. "I wasn't a music critic, but I wrote about him in the Sun-Times because after
hearing him sing 'Old Folks' and 'Sam Stone,' how could I not?" (The "old folks" song was called "Hello in There," one of his most popular songs.)
Prine was on his way to the big time, recording a slew of critically acclaimed albums, including Diamonds in the Rough (1972), Sweet Revenge (1973), Common Sense (1975) and Bruised Orange in 1978, often co-writing songs with another Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman, whose own songs included classics such as "City of New Orleans."
Prine continued to write and record in the 1980s, but with little commercial success, until 1991's Grammy Award-winning "The Missing Years," which true to Prine's whimsical nature, imagined what Jesus was doing as a child, before his ministry.
In 1995 he released "Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings," followed by 1999's "In Spite of Ourselves," a rare album in that it only contained one Prine original (the rest were covers of classic country songs), but was nonetheless one of his biggest hits. The title track was a hilarious ditty he sang with alt country singer Iris Dement.
In 1998 Prine was diagnosed with cancer and had to have surgery to remove a tumor from his throat. The surgery didn't cripple Prine, but only added roughness to his already gravelly voice.
Several years later Prine recorded "Fair & Square," which was a welcome return to form for Prine and garnered him the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Prine hasn't recorded an album of all-new material since then, but his latest, last year's "The Singing Mailman Delivers," features two live recordings from 1970, one at the seminal Fifth Peg and another recorded in Chicago's WFMT Studios after he was interviewed by Studs Terkel. The title is taken directly from Ebert's review from back in the day.
When asked if he has plans for an album of new songs, Prine was typically and wryly Prine-like:
"I try and not set any borders in the first place, it's really whatever comes out, you know?" he told the Huffington Post. "I guess that's kind of a funny way to go about it. But sometimes it works."
Mac McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. GO!
·What: John Prine, plus Justin Townes Earle
·Where: Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey
·When: Friday, Dec. 7; doors open at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.
·Tickets: $45 and $55 upstairs seating, $65 downstairs seating, plus service charges, available at the theater box office or www.ticketmaster.com
·Information: www.goldenstatetheatre.com, 324-4571