Song You Need To Know: John Prine & Margo Price ‘Unwed Fathers’
You know “Unwed Fathers” is great country songwriting from the title alone — an offhanded spin of a familiar phrase that reveals the presumptions, bias and bullshit hiding in our language in plain sight. Co-written with Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby “He Stopped Loving Her Today” Braddock, the story involves a young woman at an “Appalachian Greyhound station,” pregnant and leaving home, saying goodbye to her brother and heading off to an uncertain future, in a culture where unwed mothers are “kept under cover/like some bad dream/while unwed fathers/can’t be bothered/they run like water/through a mountain stream.”
The song’s been covered by Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, and Deer Tick, among other acts, and on Prine’s new acoustic remake of his 1984 original, Margo Price comes in on the second verse: “In a cold and gray town, a nurse says ‘Lay down,’” she sings with an ache. “‘This ain’t no playground, and this ain’t home.’” It’s one of those rare cases of a remake bettering the original, and it’ll break your heart.
Prine re-recorded “Unwed Fathers” as part of a fundraising effort for the ACLU in the wake of Alabama’s near-complete ban on abortion, passed in May and set to take effect in November. He explained his reasoning behind the benefit: “I’m always concerned when our civil liberties are being attacked. I believe in our Constitution. We wanted to support the work of the ACLU and invite others to do the same. That song has always been about how women are the ones who carry, birth and sometimes are left with taking care of and raising children too. Now they want to take away their right to decide if or when they do that. Women should be the ones to make decisions about what affects their lives in such a big way. It seems pretty simple to me.”
The song is the A-side of an ACLU benefit “album” titled The Living Room Sessions that includes another remake from Prine’s Useless Love LP: “People Puttin’ People Down,” recorded with Jason Isbell (that’s a song Prine fan Bob Dylan clearly counts among his favorites). You can find “Unwed Fathers” on Prine’s Bandcamp site. Below is an alternate version Prine + Price did live in Nashville last year.