Gift Guide: John Prine

Crooked Piece of Time: The Atlantic & Asylum Albums (1971-1980) (Rhino)

John Prine's songs could unite America.

People living in his lyrics aren't as easily divisible as Democrats or Republicans. They're everyfolk, who work day shifts, eat meatloaf, fish, love, dream, and die – himself included. Take the characters on the ex-Army mechanic's eponymous 1971 debut.

Meet Donald and Lydia, socially rejected kids who, from a distance, possess a great romance. Meanwhile, Loretta and her husband became that silent, isolated, elderly couple yearning for someone to say, "Hello, in there." And tragically, war hero Sam Stone fades into heroin addiction.

Prine's lyrical portraiture arrived rich with understanding. Even Diamonds in the Rough, the Chicagoan's straight-faced sophomore record, glints generous compassion in "Billy the Bum," which counterbalances the American disillusionment of "Take the Star Out of Your Window" and "The Great Compromise." Understanding, compassion, compromise: We could use a lot more of that in this country.

The 73-year-old Nashville dweller died in April on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19. Before they scattered his ashes along Kentucky's Green River, one posthumous song appeared: "I Remember Everything." In it, Prine claims he remembers "Every song I ever sang/ On a guitar out of tune." Crooked Piece of Time remasters the folk singer's early Atlantic and Asylum Records output, seven albums on 7 CDs spanning 1971-1980. Prine ultimately released 18 studio LPs, and this set contains four of his five finest: (in order of greatness) John Prine, Sweet Revenge, Bruised Orange, and Storm Windows.

Even the worst John Prine song is still good. Rockabilly indulgence Pink Cadillac (1979) ranks substandard largely because half the songs are covers. He'd soon release a stronger rock record in 1980's Storm Windows, full of quirky observations ("Living in the Future") and heartening love songs ("I Had a Dream"). Bruised Orange, following a musically moving but hit-lacking Common Sense, reinforces friend/collaborator Steve Goodman, here the producer, as Prine's best muse. The country Zen of "Fish and Whistle" and the wondrously shrugging "That's the Way the World Goes 'Round" boost the singer's most underrated album.

That stacks well with triumphant third disc Sweet Revenge, where the writing exerts a wide range: values ("Grandpa Was a Carpenter"), victimization ("Christmas in Prison"), and especially humor ("Please Don't Bury Me," "Dear Abby"). Prine understood life's a lot scarier if you can't grin at it.

In an age where artist catalogs stream at our fingertips, box sets remain a dare to listen long, deep, and chronologically. This 79-song playlist will do your soul good.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More John Prine
John Prine Beyond Words
John Prine Beyond Words

Kevin Curtin, June 16, 2017

Read My Lips
John Prine, In Spite of Himself
Unauthorized bio isn't even helped by its own subject

Kevin Curtin, May 29, 2015

More by Kevin Curtin
Austin Chronic: The Many Crusades of Adam Reposa
Austin Chronic: The Many Crusades of Adam Reposa
Months after being raided, lawyer continues to taunt the courts, the cops, and Ken Paxton

June 14, 2024

The Austin Chronic: I Really Needed a Lazy Day at Lazy Daze
The Austin Chronic: I Really Needed a Lazy Day at Lazy Daze
An Amsterdam-style coffee shop where you can smoke inside

May 31, 2024


John Prine, Gift Guide 2020

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle