In Spite of Himself, John Prine Comes Up Grinning

John Prine sits down for a candid talk on cancer, cheatin' and the trouble with happiness

John Prine is sitting in a midtown Manhattan hotel bar at happy hour, talking passionately -- and rather cheerfully -- about heartbreak. It's not that he's obsessed with sadness, he just loves the songs that inevitably spring from misery -- the sound, as it were, of loneliness. "I just like a good, sad song," he says with a sheepish, sadistic grin. "The sadder, the better. It moves me."

Over the last three decades, Prine has written more than his fair share of world-class wrenchers, songs like the bitter-sweet "Far From Me" and the incomparable "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" that don't so much tug at frayed heartstrings as snap them in two. But for his latest album, In Spite of Ourselves, the quintessential songwriter's songwriter gave his pen a rest and gleefully dug into a heady batch of his favorite "meetin', cheatin' and retreatin'" songs, each cut as a duet with a different female singer. Smack in the middle of recording the album, Prine was diagnosed with neck cancer, but after a year of treatment he returned to the project and ended up with one of the most enjoyable albums of his career.

In spite of all the songs about broken love and infidelity, In Spite of Ourselves is packed with wry humor and the sound of a man having the time of his life with nine different women. Prine sums it up best on the title track, the album's one original which he wrote for the upcoming film, Daddy and Them (in which he co-stars with Billy Bob Thornton): "In spite of ourselves," he sings with a delightfully demented Iris DeMent, "We'll end up sitting on a rainbow...There won't be nothin' but big old hearts dancin' in our eyes."

You've always been known first and foremost as a songwriter. Any doubts, then, about releasing an album of covers with only one new original song?

It was a pet project. I figured, why have your own record company if you can't do something like this? It's not like I'm singing Tibetan war chants or something. These are my favorite songs, and I figured I'd just see if some of my favorite girl singers would come to the studio and sing with me. I kind of halfway expected a lot of people to go, 'What's this? Where's his newest twelve songs?' But in order to keep my juices going, I've got to do something like this every once in a while.

When did you start this project?

We started in September of '97. We were at it for a week and almost had half the record cut. I took Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith in one week, and we cut eight songs and we used all eight of them. Then I hit the road and I finished up some dates, I came home around Thanksgiving, and that's when I got diagnosed with cancer. So I just set everything on the shelf for a year and a half until I got back on my feet and picked the record back up in January. Otherwise, the record would have taken two and a half weeks, it was going so fast.

Did the cancer pose a direct threat to your singing career?

Well because it was in my neck area, there was a possibility that it could spread to the throat. They had to radiate the whole throat, the vocal cords. I don't think it really did anything -- it might have dropped my voice a little bit. One of the things that I had to deal with afterwards was they took the saliva glands out, so your mouth dries up in like an instant. So far I haven't had any problem doing shows, I just take a big drink of water before a song and hope it lasts until the end. But the doctors were going to try to block my vocal cords so they didn't get any radiation to them. I said, 'You guys ever heard me sing? If I can talk, I can sing. I'll worry about singing, you guys worry about getting rid of all the cancer.'

Did you write at all during that time?

No. But I do everything to avoid writing. That was a good excuse not to write for a year and a half. I mean, I'm feeling fine right now, but the last thing I want to do is sit down and write a song. I've got a feeling I'm getting close to writing, but I don't know about what. The subject matter is getting stranger and stranger for me. It has to keep me interested, so I'm thinking of turning into a dirty old man. I have to have something that really excites me in order to write about it.

Were you concerned at all about how your versions of these songs would stand up to the originals?

(Laughs) No. I don't think anybody's going to wonder if I had a better version than George Jones. The only time it really occurred to me that I was trying to stand in George's own shoes was when I was singing "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds" with Melba Montgomery, his duet partner, and Melba tells me that Buddy Emmons, who's sitting in on steel guitar next to us, played on the original record too. And all of a sudden, I go, "What am I doing here?" I felt like I was in a karaoke place, and I got to sing along with my favorite artist, but I could take their voice out and sing with their duet partner.

How intimate -- or personal -- are your own hurtin' songs?

It's usually drawing on personal experience. I don't think I could dig deep enough trying to get into somebody else's life. Like "Far From Me" -- I wrote it about this waitress that I was dating when I was fifteen or so, and she broke up with me. It's great, though, you really feel like you got them back when you can write a song that good about something somebody did to you.

Don't those songs dredge up a lot of bad memories though?

Just during the song. But that feels good; you feel like you're doing your job as a country folk singer. You get there right again, you're right there in the door when she's slamming it in your face, just singing about it.

How about at the actual time of impact -- when your heart's being stomped on, do you always feel a song coming on?

Oh yeah. I never know it at the time, but you can get a lot of great ones out of it. I wish I had the wherewithal to do that right at the time when it really hurts, like, "Man, this is going to make a really great song." But I think I'd rather be happy than sitting around waiting for something sad to happen so I could write a good song about it. They don't make as good songs, though, I don't think -- happy ones. Right now I've got a very happy home life; it's at a point where I don't know what I'm going to write about. My songs might all be about whistling and skipping around the house. Or I think I may have to get into a peeping tom mode where I'm writing about the neighbors and their problems. I'm running out of problems here.