John Prine is Back in the Game

Fair & Square (Cowboy Records)
John Prine

By Sean Hoban

About six months ago I bought John Prine's classic record Bruised Oranges. I immediately loved it, but I thought of him as a kind of past legend. However, just as fellow legend Bob Dylan has been making a comeback in recent years, John Prine has stepped out of the shadows and back into the studio with his first recorded material in something like five years, Fair & Square.

John Prine's early work, like Paradise and Sam Stone, are similar to the irrecoverable fire that Dylan had in the early '60s. Once full of desire, pain and craving, John Prine has, with age, mellowed into a warmer and more comfortable singer. The lyrics are gentler and so is his voice, but he stills plays beautiful country/bluegrass behind richly poetic lyrics. Most songs walk the line between Johnny Cash and pure twang, but two are electric guitar rock n' roll (again, think Dylan).

Fair & Square has a lot of nostalgia, as on "Long Monday" - "We made love in every way love can be made, / and we made time look like time could never of played" - and echoed on "My Darlin' Hometown" ("Faraway me, hung up on a sweet memory"). Still, the record has deep frustration, like "Taking a Walk" (and just getting by) and humor such as "Other Side of Town." "Safety Joe" is a gold-nugget of a story, telling us of a man who "wore a seatbelt `round his heart," while on "Some Humans Ain't Human" Prine is as political as ever, deriding "that cowboy from Texas."

Much of John Prine's music is thinly veiled autobiography: "Get along with it all / where the people say y'all / sing a song with a friend / change the shape that I'm in / get back in the game / start playin' again." This seems to be just what he's doing and most of us are glad for it.