John Prine on Songwriting Inspiration, Being a Real Romantic - Rolling Stone
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John Prine: ‘It’s Hard to Write a Happy Love Song’

With the release of his 11th studio album, ‘Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,’ Prine discusses songwriting inspiration and being a “real romantic”

American singer John Prine at the Cambridge Folk Festival, England, August 2nd 1992. (Photo by Dave Peabody/Redferns/Getty Images)

John Prine at the Cambridge Folk Festival, England, August 2nd 1992.

Dave Peabody/Redferns/Getty Images

John Prine moves through the world with the rumpled, slightly cracked benevolence of a 19th century Dickens character. A grizzled singer, guitarist and storyteller for nearly 25 years (his career got a jump-start in 1971 when he was discovered by Kris Kristofferson), Prine creates songs with a homespun, heartfelt American philosophy that favors pathos and humor over preaching.

More a cult favorite than a chartbuster, Prine was finally recognized with a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, for 1991’s The Missing Years, a just reward for a man who had already penned legendary tunes like “Angel From Montgomery” and “Hello in There.” Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, Prine’s 11th studio album, is again chock-full of guys with names like Lucky LaRue who “ain’t hurtin’ nobody” and bear striking similarities to the 48-year-old Prine. “He’s just minding his own business,” he says of LaRue with a dreamer’s goofy smile, “and thinking about his girl.”

Where do you keep your Grammy?
On the mantel with a miniature bar, a little guy wearing lederhosen and an ashtray full of thumbtacks.

How did you feel when you won?
It was pretty darn neat. Luckily, it was the year they started making the ones that are a little heavier. For a while they were making Grammys that looked like they came out of a bubble-gum machine.

Are you a cynical person?
No! I’m so quick to answer that. It’s something that I call optimistic pessimism.

But a lot of your love songs are so sad.
It’s hard to write a happy love song. You don’t have much time on your hands when you’re happy in a relationship. The last thing you want to do is sit down with a paper and pencil and write about it.

Are you at your most creative when you feel like hell? 
No, but it helps.

When you’re happy, do you hardly work at all?
I hardly work at all whether I’m happy or sad. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for 25 years, man. I keep thinking I’ll have to go back to school or something.

What would be a great second career?
I’ve always thought that a really good job would be to raise worms near a fishing place. If you cut a worm in two, you’ve got two worms. So during a recession, you could double your business.

You were a mailman in Chicago for six years. Wasn’t it really cold in the winter?
Well, you only get so cold, and then you go numb.

Why do you think so many postal employees….
Are disgruntled?

Go berserk?
Walking the streets as a mailman is kind of like being in a library with no books. You go for hours and hours without seeing anybody. I used that time to make up songs. But if you’ve got a particular ax to grind, you’re out there thinking about it for seven hours. I never understood why they seem to go back and take it out on other disgruntled postal employees, though.

Do you consider yourself a romantic or a realist?
Um, a real romantic. Or a realist about romanticism. I dream a lot, but I seem to have one foot pretty much on the ground and the rest of me floating around.

Have you ever had a recurring nightmare?
When I was a kid I always lived in a house, so my recurring nightmare was that I lived in an apartment, and these guys that looked like the three wise men knocked on my door one night, tied up my mother and brother and put me in a closet with a nun. It was really crazy, and I’m not even Catholic.

Did you get a lot of flak from religious types for “Jesus the Missing Years”?
Yeah, but it was isolated. One guy sent me my CD broken in half. I thought it was kinda hard to break a CD in half.

You played an angel in Nanci Griffith’s video when she covered your song “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”
I still have my wings at home. We spent the day filming in a cemetery with angel wings on, and it was about 13 degrees. Every time a little wind came under me and Nanci, we’d begin to take off.

On your latest album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, you sing with Marianne Faithfull on “This Love Is Real.” How did that come about?
Howie Epstein, the producer, had just gotten a copy of Marianne’s book. We were thumbing through it and agreed that we loved the sound of her voice. Well, it turns out that Marianne was a big fan of The Missing Years, and when she was writing the book, she said that every time she wrote about Mick Jagger, she’d play the song “All the Best” over and over.

When you, Steve Forbert, and Bruce Springsteen released your debut albums, you were all compared to Bob Dylan. Did that hurt or help?
Well, at first I thought it was a really great compliment. That tag stuck around for a while. I think Springsteen figured the way to get rid of it was to sell more records. After that, nobody called him the new Bob Dylan anymore.

Your son Jack was born last year. What invaluable fatherly advice could you give him in 15 years?
First of all, when I take him to school, everyone’s going to say, “What’s your grandpa doing with you?” I’m actually glad right now that I don’t have to give him any advice.

Have you ever thought of writing a children’s book?
No, but a lot of people tell me their kids pick up on my songs real fast anyway. I think I kind of write from a kid’s perspective. Maybe because I trust that as opposed to whatever perspective you develop as an adult. Everything’s clear-cut. It’s good, it’s bad, it’s sweet, it’s sour. Clear-cut right down the middle.

You and your fiancee are expecting another baby in October. If you have a daughter, will you be overprotective?
Oh, I’ll be a terror. Remember, I’m a former disgruntled postal employee.

In This Article: John Prine

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