Friday, December 4, 2020

John Prine Christmas in Prison—Murfin ’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                            Christmas in Prison by John Prine.

We lost John Prine this April, another victim of the first Coronavirus.  He was 71 and had been wracked with health problems for years but continued writing, recording, and performing almost to the end.  His once luxuriant brown locks had receded to a thin gray brush.  His face was contorted by the removal of half a cancerous jaw.  His distinctive twangy tenor had become something of a gravely rasp.  He was often in pain and sidelined for various hospitalizations but was soon back on the stage and the recording studio.

He had come a long way from his days as the singing Maywood Mailman and stand-out star of the old Chicago folk music scene.  His 1971 debut self-titled album on Atlantic Records was a treasure trove memorable songs—the rollicking and irreverent Illegal Smile and Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Any More; the bittersweet ballads Hello in There, Paradise, and Angel From Montgomery; and the gut wrenching Sam Stone.  It was a virtuoso collection that rivaled anything Bob Dylan could put out.  Two follow up albums added more great songs to his portfolio.

                             Young John Prine.

But despite that song bag and an electrifying stage presence as a solo artist; in duets with pals like Steve Goodman, Kris Kristofferson, or Iris DeMent; or with a kick-ass band Prine never became big star with his own hit records, radio play, or stadium tours.  Other people scored hits with songs.  He was idolized by other musicians and had a devoted cult following.  Late in life some fans followed him from city to city on his tours like Deadheads.  He was too dangerous and radical for country music establishment and country radio; too country for rock & roll; and too rock for fans of laid back folk singer-songwriters.

Prine switched labels and moved to Nashville, but Asylum did not seem to know what to do with him and he grew to mistrust major labels for exploiting songwriters.  In 1981 he founded his own label, Oh Boy which gave him creative control but limited distribution.

He regularly released albums—live shows, compilations, collaborations some new material until Fair & Square in 2010.  Now battling two different cancers, heart disease, and a compromised immune system that made him susceptible to pneumonia and infectious diseases he finally began to achieve the popular acclaim that has eluded him.  In 1918 album Prine’s first album of new material in 13 years, The Tree of Forgiveness became highest-charting album on the Billboard 200.

Prine in maturity/

In 2019, he recorded several tracks including Please Let Me Go 'Round Again which warmly confronted the end of life his final recording session.  The last song Prine recorded before he died was I Remember Everything  released on June 12, 2020 with a music video. It was released following the two-hour Tribute Celebrating John Prine aired on June 11, which featured Sturgill Simpson, Vince Gill, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Bonnie Raitt, Rita Wilson, Eric Church, Brandi Carlile and many other country artists and friends. On the first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, I Remember Everything was the soundtrack to the COVID-19 memorial video.

Prine collected many honors—14 Grammy nominations, three wins, and the Lifetime Achievement Award; six wins from the Americana Music Honors & Awards;   the PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award; and election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  And more honors may be coming—he is likely to finally enter the Country Music Hall of Fame and perhaps even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Prine 1993 Christmas album featured a picture of him as a boy on a department store Santa's lap.

Today’s Holliday Music Festival selection is Christmas in Prison, surely the most melancholy seasonal hall this side of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York.  It first appeared on Prine's second album Diamonds in the Rough in 1972 and was also included on A John Prine Christmas in 1993, and Souvenirs in 2000.

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