Less than two years ago, John Prine was in a creative rut. "The one thing I can't remember about writing songs is just how fucking simple it is," he told Rolling Stone last year. So Prine – who has written classics such as "Angel From Montgomery" and "In Spite of Ourselves" – decided to force himself to write. His wife Fiona booked him a hotel room at Nashville's Omni a few miles from his house so he could write in peace. "I went there with 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics and four guitars," Prine says. "I looked like Howard Hughes checking in. I was in there for a week. I was up till three in the morning sometimes and slept all day."
The result is The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album in 13 years; Rolling Stone gave the album four stars last week. Co-writers include Dan Auerbach, Tennessee songwriting veterans Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook and Keith Sykes – and even Phil Spector. The legendary producer has a credit on "God Only Knows," a haunting song about guilt that dates back to 1978, the year Prine met him at a party at Spector's house. "A total crazy nuthouse," Prine says. "We wrote two verses to 'God Only Knows.' I get a cab. It sits there 40 years. I pull it out at the Omni hotel … and boom, it all came together."
In this short film, for which this writer conducted several of the on-camera interviews, Prine talks about why he wasn't afraid of returning to the studio ("After cancer, I ain't scared of nothing."). The songwriter does, however, admit to being a little superstitious about putting out new music just as his old songs are being embraced by younger Americana acts like Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price: "I was kind of afraid to put a record out because my luck was running so good," he says. "I thought if I put a record out it's gonna ruin everything. … It's not like I had one hit or two hits and they froze me in time. So by being kind of obscure during the years, it's helped me in a way. I'm kind of like the Lone Ranger or Batman. I can just go to my mansion and jump out in my uniform and sing on weekends."