"The dressing rooms are bigger and cleaner, and the money gets better," says John Prine, comparing his life today playing swanky venues like The Orpheum to the never-ending barroom tour of yesteryear.
For three decades and change, Prine has explored the dark roots and comic branches of traditional American song craft, producing a masterful body of work that has earned him comparisons to artists such as Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard. His already scratchy voice has gotten huskier with age and rougher since winning a scary fight with a carcinoma located in his neck. The man who put Muhlenberg County on the map coughs occasionally, and it sounds ragged and raw. But when he talks about singing at his family reunion or his latest CD, Fair & Square -- a satisfying lesson in Americana done absolutely right -- he sounds as giddy as a schoolboy, like a man who still has an adolescent crush on his music, his fans, and his life on the open road.
"Sometimes a steering wheel is better than a guitar," Prine says wistfully. "Driving is one of the best places to mess around with ideas for songs." The author of such honky-tonk anthems as "Paradise" and "In Spite of Ourselves," Prine has always counted on sudden bursts of inspiration in unlikely places. But these days he has been taking a more businesslike approach to touring and songwriting. The cancer scare brought him closer to his family, especially to his 9- and 10-year-old boys. He wants to be home so he can drive them to school even if it means keeping normal hours and going to bed at 10 o'clock at night. But Prine's efforts to keep bankers' hours are often thwarted by a muse that never learned how to punch a time clock.
"When I say I'm going to write a song, I can come up with any excuse in the world to do anything other than write a song," he says, describing his approach as equal parts laziness and patience bound so tightly it's impossible to know where one quality ends and the other begins.
"It's a different thing when I sit down with [Memphis songwriter and longtime collaborator] Keith Sykes or some of my buddies in Nashville," Prine says. "It's more likely that I'll actually make the appointment and I'll have some fun and maybe at the end of the day we'll get a song out of it. But I've never had any discipline whatsoever. I just wait on a song like I was waiting for lightning to strike. And eventually -- usually sometime around 3 in the morning -- I'll have a good idea. By the time the sun comes up, hopefully, I'll have a decent song."
Now that Prine's a homebody who tours on the weekends and tries to turn in early, 3 a.m. lightning strikes don't mean as much as they used to, and once in a while, though never for very long, he wonders how much water is left in the creative well.
"Sometimes, I feel like I've run the sucker dry," he says with a belly laugh. "But then something will come along and prove me wrong. When you go for a while without writing you start to forget how simple and how basic it is. It's easy to dress a simple thing up and make it a tough thing to do."
To define simplicity Prine recounts a recent visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame to watch another legendary songwriter and performer, Tom T. Hall, play his farewell concert. Country music's fabled "storyteller" invited Prine on stage to sing "Paradise," a song that Hall recorded in 1976. Prine's reverence for Hall reminded him of the song's humble origins.
"I wrote it just to get my father's attention," he says. "Whenever I took out my guitar, Daddy would ask for Hank Williams or Roy Acuff, and I wrote that song just to say, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a songwriter too.'" When the intent is clear and simple, Prine says, people take notice.
Prine cut his teeth in Chicago's folk scene before getting soulful with Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and cutting rockabilly tracks under the knowing eyes of Sam and Knox Phillips, and he swears he knew more about writing songs 25 years ago than he does today. At this point in time, he seems surprisingly thankful for the good fortune of never charting a national hit.
"When you have a hit, people use that as a watermark," he says. "I think that bogs you down. Everything after that's just not up to par." On the other hand, the expectations of rabid fans can put as much pressure on a touring artist as a recording label.
"I've had periods when I felt I'd been carrying some of the older songs for a long time, and I was tired of them," he says. "But after I went through my cancer scare, my voice dropped a little and I couldn't sing my old songs in the place I was so comfortable with. I had to tune the guitar way down and take almost a conversational tone. Some of the old songs became totally brand-new to me. All of a sudden I was saying, 'Wow, that's really good.' Imagine how good it would have been if I used different chords."