I spent hours, which when added together must have been years, in record stores when I was a kid. During college, I would ditch class and go to Spinners record store. In its heyday, Spinners was the best record store there was. The owner was a deep well of knowledge. He was a conservative grader, and he set the fairest prices I have ever seen. Even now, I’ll pull out a record I paid twelve bucks for at Spinners and see that it is going for $100 on eBay. Spinners is now three owners down the line and is no longer the paradise it once was, but some of the best memories of my life are in that store. I often see a meme floating around the internet that says, “Records are cheaper than a psychiatrist.” It’s trite, but it’s true. Gary, the owner, not only turned me onto more music than any nineteen year old could handle, but he helped guide me through a very difficult time in my life. He passed off great books to me, held records aside for me until I could afford them, and gave me advice from a life Gary lived on his own terms. After hanging out in the store for a while, Gary began to understand my taste in music. He started to make suggestions to me, and he was always right. At some point, Gary handed me a copy of John Prine’s self-titled first album and told me to buy it. I was hesitant at first, but he was never wrong. Gary was right. It was a great album that I had seen the record in the store hundreds of time, but I had always passed it up.
Let me go off on a tangent here before continuing. I was lucky enough to own my own store at one point. It didn’t last too long, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. The store is still there, but I sold my shares. That’s another story though. My favorite part of owning the store was turning people onto new artists, much like Gary had done for me. No one ever came in looking to buy a John Prine album. I had at least four copies of his first album in store and all times, and people continually passed it up. In fact, it was probably the strongest album I had in stock that people never came into buy. They did buy a shit load of Foreigner though (go fucking figure). I did sell John Prine though. I played his first self-titled album frequently in the store. Once “Illegal Smile” or “Angel from Montgomery” came on, someone would saddle up to the counter and ask what was playing. That’s how I sold John Prine.
At this point, I have to analyze why people pass up this great album. I think it has to be the cover. The cover features some blatantly staged hay bales. Prine sits upon one of the hay bales with his guitar propped against the side of another hay bale. Prine sits there sheepishly in his denim jeans and denim shirt. His legs are crossed at the ankles, and his hands are in his lap. If you were to judge the album solely based on the cover, you would assume it was some hokey country album with a lot of singing about Jesus. If you’ve done any digging through records, you know that covers can often be misleading. In fact, Prine himself has joked about the cheesy album cover.
Once you look past the cover, you’ll realize that the album is brilliantly crafted. It’s a mix of folk, rock, and country, but the reason you pick up a John Prine album is for the lyrics. Prine is a slyly clever guy. His lyrics are witty and often biting. In fact, he’s probably the best lyricist you’ve never hear of, but his name is traded amongst music snobs with revere. The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach has stated in several interviews that he is a fan of Prine’s. In fact, Auerbach went onto explain the butterflies he felt the first time he met Prine in person. When discussing folk, the baseline of comparison is always Dylan, and while Prine is in Dylan’s league, it’s not a fair comparison. First, Prine and Dylan are products of different times. Dylan is an icon of the 60’s, and Prine is set squarely in the recession of the 70’s. Flares of Americana weave their way through John Prine’s music, so it only makes since that Prine sings about the struggles of middle class suffocating under the weight of life. John Prine’s first album deals with heavy topics but still comes off as sweetly naïve. In fact, the weight of the lyrics won’t hit you until a few listens into the album. Even now, when I’ve heard this album a few hundred times, I still find new nuances in the lyrics. Prine is well aware of what he’s doing, and it is all part of the album’s charm.
Prine’s self-titled album opens with the track “Illegal Smile,” where Prine explains that when he needs to escape life he can purchase a smile that “doesn’t cost very much and lasts a long while.” It’s a sing-along classic where you’ll find yourself joining in before you even realize he’s talking about weed. This cheeky take on drug use quickly shifts gears when Prine moves into his second song “Sam Stone” about a drug addicted Vietnam veteran who dies of an overdose. Sam Stone is the man with the hole in his arm, “where all the money goes.” Again, it’s a song where the subject matter won’t sink in at first because of the sheer enjoyment and tone of the music. “Sam Stone” was ranked number eight in Rolling Stone’s ten saddest songs. Side two of the album opens with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” a song about phony patriotism. The song was originally written as a response to the Vietnam War, but it seems just as relevant today where people respond “Merica,” both straight faced and ironically, to almost anything. The real gem on the album is “Angel from Montgomery.” The song deals with an older woman who wants a savior to come take her away from a life that is suffocating her. It’s Prine’s most pointed look at how smothering life can be.
Prine’s self-titled album is a solid listen from start to finish. There’s not a bad track in the bunch. Prine comes off as genuine during the album. This is a rare feat in the folk world where musicians often take on an air of self-important and phony genius. Prine is a story teller who weaves songs about people. They’re not real people, but you’ll find yourself feeling for these people by the end. John Prine has a homespun sincerity and charm that is not easy to find. It shouldn’t be hard for you to find a copy of John Prine, but when you do, you should expect to pay between ten and thirty dollars dependent on condition and pressing.