On his first album, John Prine sang "I am an old woman, named after my mother/My old man is another child that's grown old." The song was "Angel From Montgomery," and he wrote it when he was 22, best he can recall. But he was an old 22: An Army vet lucky enough to be sent to Germany instead of Vietnam, he returned intact to his Chicago homeground and resumed his mailman job while America rode out the Sixties. He got involved with the folk scene and began writing songs as a hobby, performing publicly for the first time on a dare, legend has it, at the Fifth Peg folk club, after bitching about how bad the acts were. When someone told him to get up on stage if he thought he could do better, he did and he did.
Prine was a wiseass and a comedian, sure (his 1971 self-titled debut LP opened with "Illegal Smile," a sly ballad about being stoned). But it was his gigantic empathy, channeled with casually exacting poetics, that set him apart, that would have him channeling the voice of an aged woman fingering unfairly dashed dreams at the height of the hippie movement. John Prine also featured songs about the more general loneliness of old folks ("Hello in There"), the senseless death of a fatherless son ("Six O'Clock News"), and the fate of a wounded veteran-turned-junkie abandoned by his country ("Sam Stone," with the indelible couplet "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose"). It remains one of the greatest singer-songwriter LPs ever, up there with Joni's Blue, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks or anything else you've got.
Prine's kept at it steadily, despite a muse evidently grown less insistent, for nearly 50 years, and Tree of Forgiveness is his first set of originals in over a decade. It's produced by Dave Cobb, and it's very good, frequently brilliant, with all the qualities that define Prine's music. It also shows, literally and figuratively, the voice of a man in his seventies. After neck surgery in 1998 to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, and more surgery to treat lung cancer in 2013, Prine's plainspoken tenor creaks like an wide-plank old floor in winter. What his voice misses in range is made up for intermittently by harmony vocals from Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, Prine's artistic offspring all. And to be sure, that voice is effective as hell on the material. It amplifies the poignancy of "Summer's End," an open-armed invitation home to a grown child, perhaps, amidst images of inevitable loss, penned with Prine's longtime co-write partner Pat McLaughlin. The voice adds wizened gravitas to the class-conscious "Caravan of Fools" ("Late at night you see them/Decked out in shiny jewels"). And of course, it nails the death meditation "When I Get to Heaven," a mix of punchlines, sweet sentimentality and looming void. It's precisely what Dylan – a major fan who offered to sit in on harmonica at Prine's first New York gig – was referring to when he famously described Prine's writing as "pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree." (He'd certainly know.)
Prine's voice was deployed expertly Wednesday night in Woodstock, New York at Levon Helm's old barn studio on Plochmann Lane, five minutes as the crow flies from Dylan's old place on Ohayo Mountain Road. It was a full-band warm-up for a 40-plus date world tour that would last until Christmas, with new members Ken Blevins on drums and Fats Kaplan on mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel filling out the ranks. Prine picked up one of his acoustic guitars, attached it to a leather guitar strap engraved with words "HANDSOME JOHNNY" and selected a pick from a table behind him arrayed with a small practical shrine: old Prine family photos, capos, chachkas and beverages. Old and new songs flowed. The opiate guitar flourish in "Sam Stone," when Prine sang "the gold rolled through his veins/Like a thousand railroad trains" was as magnificently chilling as it ever was. The regret on "Souvenirs" was still fresh, still a masterclass in songcraft (yes, "boughten" is a word). The effect of "Hello in There" was only deepened by time, delivered by someone finally as old as the songs subjects.
"Lake Marie" – which Dylan's suggested might be his favorite Prine song – was the set's rollicking highlight, as it has been in Prine shows for decades. A sleight-of-hand narrative triptych with an unstoppable guitar groove that first turned up on Prine's 1995 LP Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, and again on the 1997 Live on Tour, it seems to sweep up the entire history of America, macrocosmically and microcosmically, in its elliptically connected tale of native American lore, doomed marriage, horrifically unfathomable violence, sizzling sausages, human hunger and the intoxicating power of rock & roll, specifically "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, whose gibberish lyrics Prine flips into a grimly existential coda. When Prine shouts "shadows! Shadows!" it's the sound of a man flabbergasted at the lies life tells us, but figuring he might as well just dance to them.
Prine ended the night by segueing "Lake Marie" directly into the new "When I Get to Heaven," revealing their formal kinship: avuncular spoken-word verses abutting addictive sing-along choruses. As meditations on mortality go, it was a more upbeat note to end on, so touching I even forgave him the line rhyming "critics" with "syphilitic parasitics" (if you're gonna to be dissed, let it be by the best). Prine sang his hopes about reuniting with his departed loved ones, kissing a pretty girl on the Tilt-a-Whirl, and opening up a nightclub in heaven called the Tree of Forgiveness, which I'd imagine as a place not unlike Levon's barn. I hope Prine does. And I hope I get there eventually, so I can take him up on the song's promised pint of Smithwick's.