Author Talk: Erin Osmon on ‘John Prine’


360°Sound spoke with music journalist and critic Erin Osmon, author of the recent 33 1/3 book on John Prine’s classic self-titled debut album (out now on Bloomsbury Academic). John Prine was released in 1971 on Atlantic Records, and featured songs that would go on to become folk standards, such as “Paradise,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and “Sam Stone.”

Osmon teaches music journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her debut book, Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, was named a Best Music Book of 2017 by Pitchfork. In this exclusive interview, Osmon discusses Prine’s brilliant songwriting, her favorite song on the album, Prine’s career boost from film critic Roger Ebert, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

360°Sound: Please start by saying why you chose John Prine and this particular album for your 33 1/3 book.

author Erin Osmon [credit: Ryan Lowry]

Erin Osmon: John Prine and his music is essentially a family heirloom in my family. My dad passed it down to me, and his dad passed it down to him, and so the music has always been really important to my family and the fabric of who we are. It really helped inform my tastes when I was a teenager. Prine was one of the first folk musicians I got into. John Prine was one of the first albums that my dad and I really agreed was amazing. I just always loved his work.

I moved to Chicago after completing my undergrad studies. Prine is very important to the musical fabric there. Chicago really celebrates its sons and daughters. I had the sense that maybe folks outside of Chicago didn’t understand how important this city was to Prine, his foundation as a songwriter, his discovery, and first record deal. I wanted to capture that and share it with the broader world outside of Chicago.

What are some of the ways in which Prine’s songwriting reflected Midwestern values?

I think one thing that maybe a lot of folks don’t know is there is a great synergy between the South and Midwest. My dad’s family came up to Indiana from Kentucky in search of work; they didn’t want to work in the coal mines. They came to Evansville, Indiana. My dad’s father, my grandpa, became a tool and die maker. Prine’s origin story in Maywood, Illinois is very similar. His grandparents and dad traveled north from Kentucky for work. I think there’s this shared language between the two regions, and I think of it like an inclusive Middle America. When I think of Middle America, I think of that relationship between the South and the Midwest.

Most of the songs on John Prine were taken directly from Prine’s day-to-day life. Things that he was observing in the Chicago suburbs, in the Old Town folk music scene, and when he was in the service and stationed in Germany. While it sounds like a parable – it sounds like something that could be imagined because it’s so powerful – it’s actually very pedestrian. That’s the magic of Prine. He took these very pedestrian images from his day-to-day life and elevated them to something really important and profound.

Prine is lauded as one of the greatest songwriters. What makes his songwriting so special on his first record?

With Prine, it’s all about the lyrics. He wrote these really simple, yet profound, lyrics drawn from his everyday life. One thing that’s really special about many songs on that album is that he touched a lot of subjects that other folks weren’t touching, particularly folks his age. He was 19, 20 years old when he was writing these songs, which is incredible to think about today.

Songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Sam Stone” are a little controversial and revolutionary. I don’t think that’s what he was thinking when he was writing these things. I think he was just thinking, ‘I just spent a couple years in the service, and it felt sort of futile, and I didn’t get a big celebration when I came home like in WWII. And my friends who I served with are now struggling.’ I think that’s what led to “Sam Stone.” It was a massive protest that has endured and applied to any number of wars.

The same thing goes for ‘I am an old woman’ [the opening line from “Angel from Montgomery”]. Writing a song about a woman who’s middle-aged but feels older than she is and is dissatisfied with her life, what 20-year-old boy writes a song like that? [laughs]. I just think that’s so beautiful and so singular to Prine.

Do you have a favorite track on the album?

My favorite song is “Far From Me.” I love all the songs. Essentially this is a greatest hits album, which is another crazy thing to think about it. “Far From Me” is so sad. She waits ‘a second too long.’ I think it’s one of the songs that really transcends genres beautifully. It’s sort of a classic country song, like George Jones could have sung.

I love that it’s just drawn from heartbreak Prine endured in the Chicago suburbs. His first girlfriend who worked in the diner who broke his heart. I just think it’s a really beautiful, powerful, transcendent song.

The album was recorded with the Memphis Boys, the killer house band at American Sound Studios, who played on Dusty in Memphis and From Elvis In Memphis and countless hits. What did they bring to the album musically?

With those guys, their job was to work in service of the song. Their job was to make hits, and if they didn’t achieve that goal, they hadn’t done their job. They went to every session with that as their North Star. They’d never really played on a folk album. Arif Mardin, who’s an iconic producer, had never really produced a folk album. I think they all were sort of guessing.

Prine wasn’t quite folk, he wasn’t quite country, he’s not a super sophisticated guitar player, so eventually, they realized during the sessions that these songs are about the lyrics. I think once that clicked with them, they really were empathetic in their flourishes. We think about the funereal organ on “Sam Stone” and certain touches like that. I think that they really just tried to decorate the songs and the lyrics. I think they did a pretty good job considering how green everyone was in this setting.

I learned from reading your book that film critic Roger Ebert was one of the first to write about Prine.

A lot of folks don’t realize that Ebert was like a hipster in the ‘70s [laughs]. He was on the scene in Old Town, hanging out with Shel Silverstein and Second City comedic icons of the time. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he would have wandered into a folk club one night to catch some music.

As the story goes, he had been in a film screening that he thought was pretty rotten, so he left and wandered into the Fifth Peg, where Prine was doing one of his regular sets. Instead of writing his Friday film review, he decided to write about Prine because he just saw such a singular talent in his midst. The thing about Chicago is that it really trusts and celebrates its voices. So once Ebert positively reviewed Prine, the whole city took note because Ebert was an important figure. It just sort of skyrocketed from there.

Over 50 years later, John Prine continues to resonate with listeners. Why do you think this album holds up so well?

I think so much that we need to know about life and songwriting is in this record. People who write songs either as a profession or aspire to write songs will always turn to Prine. Even in periods when music like this wasn’t very cool in the popular culture, people who are really dedicated to the craft of songwriting will always turn to Prine and this record because it has so many iconic songs on it.

As long as people are writing songs, this album will always be relevant because no one can touch Prine. Many people have tried. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to eclipse him, so people will always be aspiring. He did a really smart thing when he started befriending young Nashville. His last album [2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness] was his highest-charting album of his career, which is wild to think about. I think that really re-energized the conversation around him, when young people were like, ‘Actually, this guy’s amazing, and everything I do is because of him.’

To order a copy of Osmon’s book, John Prine’s John Prine, click here.

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