John Prine hit the ground running with his debut album in 1971, a seamless masterpiece of what seemed like an entirely new genre of music—rocking folk country…what would become known perhaps as “Americana.” Every song on that album was an instant classic, and Prine would follow it up with several more albums, and tireless, sometimes lonely, sometimes hilarious, concert tours. John Kruth joined Prine for some of these, as an opening act, accompanist and chronicler. He shares some memories with PKM. We still miss John Prine, a casualty of the pre-vaccine COVID plague in April 2020.
John Prine, the former Maywood, Illinois mailman turned folk singer, whose uncanny lyrics, rustic voice and simple guitar picking earned him the dubious title of the “New Dylan,” released his debut album in 1971 after being discovered by Kris Kristofferson. John Prine contained a number of first-rate songs. Along with the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Prine helped define the new genre of music dubbed “Americana” with songs like “Paradise,” which describes how his Kentucky childhood home was lost to the callous greed of the coal industry. With tongue in cheek, Prine addressed issues of narrow-minded patriotism in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and fashioned visions of a vanished America with “Angel From Montgomery,” which stamped the consciousness of a new generation as deeply as Norman Rockwell’s covers for The Saturday Evening Post had for the five previous decades.
Like Johnny Cash before him, Prine was sympathetic towards America’s wide variety of social outcasts. With “Hello In There,” he addressed the loneliness of aging, stopping to peer into the lonely eyes of an old forgotten soul, while in “Sam Stone,” John portrayed a damaged vet who returned from Vietnam, still battling the memory of war while dealing with added nightmare of addiction.
While hardly an acolyte of LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary who admonished an entire generation to “Turn on, tune in and drop out,” Prine gently coerced his listeners to re-think their place in the rat race and consider finding peace through a simpler way of life. “Blow up your TV,” he crowed, “move to the country and build you a home.”
John’s lilting waltz “Illegal Smile,” another signature song from his debut album, is at once hilarious and sad. Unlike Arlo’s hipster dope smuggler, Prine’s protagonist is no freewheeling hippie brazenly waving his freak-flag in the face of the establishment. On the contrary he’s not interested in making waves. He’s just a weary workin’ man hoping for a break from a world he could neither control nor understand. Most of us assumed Prine’s “Illegal Smile,” was inspired by the satisfaction of smoking a joint. As John sang, “Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone, no I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun.”
But Prine’s perspective is rarely that obvious.
“I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope,” John told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter magazine. “It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer. When I first started singing it, I went on this underground TV program, and the only stage set they had was two chairs and this fake marijuana plant. I came on and sang ‘Illegal Smile,’ and they kept having the camera pan in, real psychedelic-like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fined by the musician’s union for not taking any money to do the show.”
I first met John Prine in the mid-Eighties after I’d been invited by his producer, Jim Rooney, to join them, along with former Everly Brothers’ guitarist Phillip Donnelly (of the Dublin Donnellys) on a quest to Muhlenberg County. That was the infamous site where “paradise lay,” once upon a time, as John once sang in his classic tune by the same name.
After driving his restored cherry-red 1951 Ford-omatic through fields of frozen mud, bare trees and withered cornstalks, we arrived at “Paradise,” stopping to take a look at “The World’s Biggest Shovel,” that hovered over an enormous pile of coal which stood where his Aunt Franny’s house used to be. John got his guitar out of the trunk and strummed a couple of chords, posing for legendary Nashville photographer Jim McGuire. In the dead of night, McGuire’s lightning flash soon drew the attention of the Tennessee Valley Authority security guards who arrived and offered to escort us off the TVA’s private property.
It was a strange scene. I half expected Rod Serling to step out of the shadows to ask that age-old question “Does folk music imitate life or does life imitate folk music?” (In Season 5/ Episode #34 of The Twilight Zone, titled Come Wander with Me, Serling introduced his viewers to a surly troubadour named Floyd Burney, AKA “The Rockabilly Kid,” who goes a-rambling through an eerie misty neck of woods where he meets a mysterious doe-eyed siren named Mary Rachel who foretells the future by singing a haunting folk song called “Come Wander with Me.” With each new verse the duck-tailed rocker finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a world of trouble. In the end he fulfills Mary’s prophecy of doom, and Serling reappears wearing a wry grin, drolly commenting at the end of the show: “Floyd Burney… achieved that final dream of the performer: eternal top-name billing, not on the fleeting billboards of the entertainment world, but forever recorded among the folk songs of The Twilight Zone.”)
Having no second thoughts about asking my singer-songwriter heroes their opinions of my early efforts, I’d previously cornered Loudon Wainwright III backstage in a tent at a Colorado folk festival to play him my satirical blues tune “Atomic Mama, Nuke Me ‘til I Glow.” He was as gracious as he could have been under the circumstance. (I later came to cherish whatever moments of repose I might find before going on stage.) “Hmmm… It just seems to go on and on…” he said bluntly. “You might wanna cut a couple of verses.”
Prine’s old buddy Steve Goodman was a bit more enthusiastic when I asked him if he’d listen to my song about a Greenwich Village soul food restaurant called “The Pink Tea Cup,” inspired by his tune “The Chicken Cordon Bleus.”
“Well, alright! You sold me!” he said with a big friendly grin. “Next time I’m in New York, I’ll make sure to stop by there.”
So, the next morning, I asked John if he’d listen to a couple tunes from Midnight Snack, my first album that was soon to be released. “Yeah, sure,” he said hesitantly and popped a cigarette in his mouth as I popped the tape into the cassette player in the dashboard of his car. He listened attentively to a couple of songs as the music and smoke filled the car. Suddenly, Prine turned the music down, raised an eyebrow and gave me a few earnest words of advice: “John,” he said, in his rusty door-hinge of a voice. “Ya gotta keep it simple or you’re gonna lose ‘em. You got too much goin’ on there. There’s enough ideas in one of your songs for a whole album. [Hell, I took that as a compliment!] And it seems like you sing a lotta songs about crazy people. You better watch out or nothin’ but crazy people are gonna show up your shows. You’ll look out in the crowd and all you’ll see is crazy people.”
“Well, you sang about ‘Sam Stone’ and when I look out at your audience, I mostly see Vietnam vets, alkies and chain-smokers,” I countered.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “I taught ‘em all that.”
A few weeks later I sold my impressions of our trip to Musician Magazine. But before the article went to print, the editor, Bill Flanagan complained that the piece was “too fluffy” and said I needed to “take a shot” at Prine, to make the reportage more balanced.
“There must be something about him that you don’t love,” he said.
“Yeah, well I didn’t think Storm Windows [Prine’s 7th album, released in 1980] was so hot,” I said.
“Write about it!” Flanagan ordered. So, I did.
When the article was published on July 1, 1986, I discovered its original title, “The Aggravating Beauty of John Prine,” (inspired by John’s great cover of Hank Williams’ “That Aggravating Beauty Lulu Walls”) had been scrapped for the rather less poetic, “Driving All Night with Beer and Camera.”
A few days later the phone rang; it was John’s manager ,Al Bunetta. He was not calling to congratulate me. Playing music while writing about it has always been a precarious balancing act. And now it seemed I had not only slipped and fallen off the high wire but was being savaged by a rabid pitbull of a human being who, in a fit of rage, called me every name in the book. Apparently, he felt I had disgraced his client by describing how he cat-called some girl in a small-town Kentucky Kwik-Sak parking lot. I foolishly attempted to defend myself, assuring Al that nearly every possible shred of incriminating evidence that might have besmirched John’s reputation had been neatly filed away in the wastebasket. But he remained livid.
The clank didn’t end there… On a cold rainy night in New York (November 5, 1986) John took the stage with a new haircut and shave and wearing a sleeveless motorcycle T-shirt. With Philip Donnelly of Dublin, standing to his right, framing every lyric with intricate riffs on an orange Stratocaster. He’d been backing up Prine for seven years at that point. They kicked off the set with a revved-up version of A.P. Carter’s “Lulu Walls.” But Prine immediately popped a D string on his Martin D-28. “They don’t make a string that I can’t break!” he joked.
A great version of “Donald and Lydia” followed. Donnelly picked up an acoustic guitar for a pair of duets – “Souvenirs” and “Blue Umbrella.” Prine strutted around the stage like a rooster, good-natured, joking. Sometimes he said things that sounded like he’d watched too many reruns of Mayberry RFD. When someone shouted out their favorite tunes, he replied, “You always act that way at the dinner table?”
Earlier that night, I’d gone down to the soundcheck to say hello to John. Surely, he couldn’t have still been upset over such a trivial matter. I hung around for a while, but he seemed distant. Nonetheless, his road manager hooked me up with a backstage pass.
So, I stood in the wings, watching timidly as John played “Storm Windows.” “Silence is golden until it screams through your bones,” Prine wailed, shooting a “I told ya so” glance in my general direction. The song sounded much better live than the record. As I’d written in the article, it wasn’t John’s writing or singing that was the problem, it was the album’s production that bugged me.
The crowd hung on every word, singing along as Prine romped through his set, including “Sabu the Elephant Boy,” “Illegal Smile,” and “Angel from Montgomery.” Then they grew quiet and reverential as John fingerpicked “Sam Stone,” momentarily transforming the rowdy Ritz into a solemn church service as he sang, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose…” Not much of a lead guitarist himself John chunked out a rhythm solo on his new number, “Linda Goes to Mars.”
“My idea of a good solo is, if you can’t be good, be loud!” he told the crowd with a chuckle. A moment later the band broke into a rollicking version of Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama” as everybody began to dance.
I had also managed to cross Donnelly on our earlier jaunt to “Paradise” after unwittingly buying a fifth of Bushmills whiskey. Back at the Rambler Rose Motel in Central City, I poured us each a round. Holding the shot glass up to the light, Donnelly immediately became suspicious of the golden liquor in the dram. After one quick sniff, he grimaced and threw it against the wall, splattering glass and whiskey everywhere. “Product of the Queen!” he roared.
“What are you talking about?” I begged, clueless over the faux pas I committed.
“It’s from Northern Ireland!” Rooney shrugged. “Phillip won’t touch the stuff!”
Meanwhile, Prine just laughed at the whole scenario. Donnelly’s bias wasn’t about to keep him from enjoying a fine libation, politically incorrect or not.
Following the Ritz gig, John was ready for a night on the town. But Donnelly, his running buddy, was nowhere to be found. Phillip seemed to have disappeared. At first, Prine figured he must’ve headed back to the hotel room. So, we checked there, but no luck. There was an Irish pub around the corner, but still no Donnelly. After walking into a handful of drinking establishments from McSorley’s to Dempsey’s to Swifts, hunting for Phillip had suddenly become a full-blown quest. Prine was now on a mission to find his wayward sideman. He’d sidle up to each bar, cock his head and squint at the bartender, and maybe even scratch his head before asking, “Hey, uh, you haven’t seen an Irishman in here by the name of Donnelly, have ya?” It quickly turned into routine, as if we were in a play by Beckett. We checked one bar after the next, but no Donnelly, until finally, we returned to the hotel, only to find him waiting in the lobby.
With the concert over, the night finally began. The whiskey flowed, the smoke was thick and women, like satellites, circled about, glimmering, until Cynthia Heimel, the brash and hilarious “Problem Lady” from the Village Voice pulled up a chair. It was getting late, or early… depending on how you looked at it. So, when John introduced me to Cynthia, I took my cue… stood up, shook her hand and said goodnight.
“I’m sure if you had a vagina, he’d find you much more interesting,” she quipped.
The next day I caught up with John for a late breakfast/early lunch and donned my journalist’s hat for a brief, mostly painless interview. He claimed to have had a bit of a headache and didn’t know if he should order a vodka and tonic or take an Alka Seltzer. “Must’ve been the vegetables in that soup,” he joked and lit a Marlboro.
JK: What are you listening to these days?
JP: Oh, the Mills Brothers… Lefty Frizzel. The kids are crazy about ‘em [laughs]!
JK: How did you get started on the guitar?
JP: My brother Dave taught me how to play “Freight Train” and “Wildwood Flower” instead of hangin’ out at the pool hall.
JK: What is your songwriting process like?
JP: God, I wish I had one! I don’t feel like I write them. They just knock on my door [laughs]. The best ones take less time to write them than to sing them. Sometimes they come along that fast.
JK: You don’t go back and revise the chords or the lyrics?
JP: There’s no reason to. I edit as I go. I don’t think too much about the words I’m saying. It’s the way they sound. I’m working with the simplest of melodies. As limited as I am on the guitar, when I write a melody, it usually all comes together at once, the words and melody. They take three or five minutes to write. The rest of the year I just sit around and go “Whew!”
JK: Are you inspired by stories in the newspaper, bits of conversation or something you catch on the TV?
JP: I wish it was that simple. I cover my refrigerator with articles from the newspaper because I love to look at headlines about guys who live in aluminum rooms, or something… But I can’t remember ever getting a song from that. I don’t know where these songs come from! It used to be so much easier!
JK: Did it make you more conscious of the process once you were expected to write songs for your next album?
JP: I never want to become too conscious of where my songs come from. But I don’t have much of a problem with that as I don’t have much of a memory [laughs]. If they’re a gift from God, then he’s crazy [laughs].
JK: Is your new album, [German Afternoons produced by Jim Rooney] your first that’s been nominated for a Grammy Award?
JP: No, in ’71 I was up for Best New Artist of the Year. Me, the Eagles, Loggins & Messina, Harry Chapin and America. America won…
JK: You’ve been on the road quite a lot lately.
JP: Yeah, I get different cities mixed up with different hotels and clubs from other cities. It really throws me off when I see a person I meet in one city in another town.
JK: You’ve got a new single coming out soon.
JP: Yeah, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.” I’m trying to settle down and make more ‘sensible’ music these days. The flip side of that record is called ‘Kokomo, Indiana.’ I wrote it on my front lawn. It’s the only a cappella song I’ve ever written. It should be out by April.
JK: It will probably be out before this gets published.
JP: It’ll be on the TV’s Greatest Hits ads by then! [laughs]
The next time I crossed paths with Prine was on February 9, 1990, at the Avalon Theater, an old movie palace on the South-Side of Milwaukee. After the gig, we headed over to the Hilton, where John had a room. A small entourage gathered around him in the hotel bar, as John watched David Letterman was on TV, talking with Reginald Lisowski, a professional wrestler better known as the Crusher, who just happened to hail from Milwaukee. Ranting about his arch-enemy Hulk Hogan, the Crusher called Hulk “a pussy,” and assured Letterman, whose eyes were popping out of his head at his colorful remarks, that he would pulverize Hulk the next chance he got. Meanwhile, John ordered drinks for everybody and stood at the bar squinting at the TV screen, observing, as he does.
A minute later, Hulk Hogan himself came sauntering through the door with his posse in tow. He bellied up to the bar beside Prine and ordered drinks for his gang of hangers-on. A moment later, John turned to him, cocked his head and squinted at him like Peter Falk in Columbo. Clearing his throat Prine said, “Mr. Hogan…Hulk? Uh, Can I call you Hulk? Is that alright?” Hogan squinted back as John continued; “Well, uh, I thought you ought to know that the Crusher was just on David Letterman a minute ago and uh, well, he called you ‘a pussy.’ With that piece of news, Hogan began getting visibly uptight. Veins started popping in his neck like he was about to explode.
“Now… now that wasn’t me sayin’ that, Mr. Hogan. It was the Crusher!” he reminded the irate wrestler before the Hulk hauled off and grabbed him by the throat and flung him across the bar. Suddenly Hogan’s fist came crashing down on the counter as a flood of profanities spewed from his mouth like drool from rabid Rottweiler.
Just then, out of the corner of his eye, Prine spied Joan Jett sashaying into the bar with a handful of friends. I wished I had a camera! What an incredible cross-section of America – John Prine, Joan Jett and Hulk Hogan.
Prine turned to me and said, “Hey John, who is that?!” “That’s Joan Jett, man!” I replied. “Y’know… ‘I love rock ‘n’ roll!” A moment later she comes slinking up to the bar, all in black leather and orders a drink… something sparkly and red. John cleared his throat, cocked his head, squinted at her and took his best shot. “Uh, pardon me, ma’am, but do you know about Jesus?” She glared at him like something slimy just crawled across her foot. “I’m talkin’ about ‘Jesus, the Missing Years’” he said, and launched into his hilarious spoken word opus by the same name while she watched him, curiously as she sipped her drink, becoming more enthralled by the moment. By the time Jesus met his Irish bride and rented a flat on the Lower East Side, as the story goes, she was hooked.
A few months later, on September 12, 1990, I was booked as John’s opening act once more. We headed north to Oshkosh, Wisconsin (the town famous for its overalls) to play the Oshkosh Grand Opera House. It was just the three of us… John’s chauffer/road manager at the wheel of a shiny black Lincoln Towne Car, with Prine riding shotgun and me in the backseat.
Built in 1883, the Grand Opera House is said to be haunted. Former stage manager, Percy Keene, claims he’d seen a phantom dog trotting down the aisles on more than one occasion, while others have reported mysterious footsteps echoing throughout the hall after hours. Best of all is the strange orange mist that randomly appears on stage without warning. But nothing particularly supernatural took place that night. When the emcee introduced me, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, John….” and the audience began to clap wildly and whistle… “Kruth!” and the applause suddenly dropped off!
I’d finished my set to a mildly enthusiastic, but somewhat restless crowd. I was clearly not the “John” they’d paid to see. Toward the end of his show, Prine called me out to play mandolin on a reverential sing-along of his classic tune, “Paradise.” After a rousing heart-felt chorus in which everyone chimed in, John called out “Sing one!” looking over at me. For one very long moment, time stood still. Not remembering the words, I dove into a torrid solo, hoping to evoke the sorrow we all feel having allowed “progress” to destroy the natural beauty of the world.
Backstage, John looked at me, shook his head and laughed. I had been to Muhlenberg County with him, but never learned the song.
“Of all the people in the joint I pick to sing with,” he said, “I chose the guy who didn’t even know the words!”