Album review: John Prine revels in real country music

John Prine

Forgive a song master for making the music he likes, and not the music he writes. John Prine has certainly earned the right to do what makes him happy.

Prine gave us his self-titled debut album of ruminations in 1971. Lauded then, it’s now considered a folk/country classic featuring songs such as the gorgeous “Angel from Montgomery,” and “Sam Stone,” a unique telling of the sad inner devastation of a Vietnam War vet.

Nearing his 70th birthday, Prine has now cut an album of his favorite country “couples” songs, sung in duet with some of the finest lady singers out there, “For Better, or Worse.” All are high-caliber performances, featuring the kind of dusty charm and wit we have come to expect of Prine. That creaky old voice still resonates with familiarity, tunefulness, and persuasion — screw a few bouts with cancer, he must have thought.

For Better, Or Worse

For proof, skip directly to the end. Although seemingly simple and direct, Hank Williams’ “Just Waitin’ ” — the only one of the 15 on the album he sings alone — transforms into a full-fledged, rough-hewn, cinematic experience. With that one song, Prine enables a listener to realize just how many other great singers he’s influenced.

But let’s talk about the ladies, and the songs. Prine picked ‘em both well. Iris Dement, who appeared on “In Spite Of Ourselves,” Prine’s first album of duets in 1999, is back. She proves a perfect foil for the sassy, droll themes of the Ernest Tubb/Loretta Lynn ditties “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” and “Mr. & Mrs. Used To Be.” In contrast, on “Storms Never Last,” Lee Ann Womack offers Prine a counterpoint dripping in lush classiness, and Alison Krauss is full of the same, plus tenderness, on “Falling In Love Again.” Within all four of those disparate songs, the emotional give and take between singers surprises by its comfort and ease.

Furthermore, Vince Gill’s “Look At Us,” with Chris Stapleton’s wife, Morgane Stapleton, teems with the pride of undying love. In Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” Prine gently two-steps with Miranda Lambert, and in the Buck Owens/Rose Maddox duet “Mental Cruelty,” he and Kasey Musgroves go to town with, and on, each other.

Real country music will never go out of style, and neither will John Prine. He and his friends just made some real great, real country music.

-Tom Clarke

  • John Prine
    “For Better, Or Worse”

    Release: Sept. 30, 2016
    Label: Oh Boy Records
    Billboard: Debuted this week at No. 2 on the Country Best Album chart

About Tom Clarke

From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos.Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage.Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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