Just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday, country-folk legend John Prine performed a marathon show at Nashville's Station Inn on Thursday night, captivating the AmericanaFest crowd stuffed inside the tiny cinder-block outpost – a legend in its own right and widely regarded as one of the premiere bluegrass venues in the world, now surrounded by luxury high-rise condos in the glitzy Gulch neighborhood.
Prine played two sets, with the first a track-for-track re-creation of his self-titled 1971 debut album, a clever, ferociously detailed group of satirical sagas that lean proudly to the political left. It's often described as a proto-catalyst in the Americana movement.
Prine, the beloved scamp of the Chicago folk revival and a songwriting favorite of artists like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, was looking to celebrate a milestone for the album, and so asked the crowd to take a trip in the way-back machine to '71.
The bar was closed and phones were (mostly) put away to keep the focus on the music, but attention to the stage is par for the course at the Station Inn. Opened in 1974, its bare-bones interior is just folding tables and chairs surrounded by concert posters from over the decades, with an outdated drinking age sticker on the cash register that lists 1979 as the required birth year for buying beer.
Fans didn't seem to know that the show would be a two-for-one, but the turnout was still much bigger than the club could handle. It only holds around 100 people, so those who got in were in line by 6:00 p.m. for a 10:30 p.m. show, and those who didn't waited fruitlessly in a huge queue outside, stretching down the block. Even Nashville's mayor, Megan Berry, was there, celebrating her birthday with a cold one in hand.
Prine stepped onstage with the same guitar that graces his debut album cover and on which he wrote all those songs, bought brand-new in '68, he remarked. Immediately, he got to work, winning over the crowd with a smirking, easygoing manner that naturally holds attention.
"This is my first record, which came out 45 years ago," he said, holding up an original vinyl LP and looking at the young man in the portrait, seated on a stack of hay bales. "I had to paid $85 for it online."
With 70 approaching, Prine's once high-and-twangy vocal delivery is now deeper and scattered, with boulders of rasp following two bouts with cancer. Still, he was sturdy and strong behind the mic, getting smoother as the show progressed.
Perfectly suited to a live performance, his album is stacked with hits up front, and he jumped straight into the iconic opening number "Illegal Smile." With the crowd singing along, the pro-weed stance was controversial in '71 and, perhaps surprisingly, remains so today.
"I'm over the hump now!" he said, moving with sure-footedness from song to song and engaging his audience like a stand-up comic. Prine seemed to be having the time of his life until the show closed, about two-and-a-half hours later.
"Spanish Pipedream" was full of movement and a sense of discovery, while "Sam Stone" and its plight of American service veterans was even more uncomfortable and relevant today.
Likewise, "Paradise" – with its environmental message against strip mining – also felt current, but Prine explained that he never meant to become a crusader against Big Coal.
Both of Prine's parents grew up in Paradise, Kentucky, he said, and he wrote the tune after his father sent a newspaper clipping about Peabody Energy buying the entire town and leveling it. "Paradise" wasn’t as idealistic as it seemed, though. "If it was a tornado that destroyed the town I would have wrote about that," Prine said. "But when Peabody heard it they went ape-shit. They thought some kid from Chicago was after them."
Peabody went bankrupt about three months ago, Prine noted with satisfaction, adding that he still hated to see the miners get laid off.
Often, the singer-songwriter would give the band a break and scratch out a solo performance, and then bring the five-piece group (which included Fats Kaplin on steel guitar and accordion) back onstage. "Pretty Good" was full of sneering energy, while the foot-stomping "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore" again hit the political mark, just a few months before the big Clinton/Trump hand-measuring contest.
The detailed breakup story of "Far From Me" felt like listening to a book on tape, while "Angel From Montgomery" turned the square, low-ceilinged room into a church sanctuary.
Prine closed out the album performance with the swaying "Six O'Clock News" and the oddly appropriate "Flashback Blues," still joking and smiling as he left the stage. But he wouldn't be gone long.
With the bar reopened and fans scurrying back to their seats, Prine returned to the stage and invited two special guests with him – the Americana power couple of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Shires has been touring with Prine and they shared a plucky rendition of "In Spite of Ourselves," filling the wide spaces between their voices with obvious affection, just like the song's narrative.
Isbell likewise took a verse on the moody "Storm Windows," and when he absent-mindedly filled a guitar solo with delicate arpeggios, Prine just shook his head with a smile.
Heading into the end, Prine – who will release the new album For Better or Worse on September 30th – still seemed to have more gas in the tank. He kept on playing until eventually admitting that he promised his wife he'd be home by 1:30 a.m., and left the stage with a quick goodbye following another cinematic but open-ended story song, "Lake Marie."
With the marathon over and everyone safely deposited back in the modern world, fans filed into the nighttime forest of 30-story condos – but Prine had reminded them that not so much has changed since those early Seventies after all. Maybe there's a different kind of progress that we should have been chasing this whole time.