The man is John Prine, and he was on his way to Asheville, N.C., to open the tour supporting his latest album, Fair & Square. It's been nine years since Prine released a record of new material. For his fans, who are an impassioned bunch, the wait has been somewhat frustrating, only partially alleviated by Prine's semi-regular touring schedule. He plays weekend shows throughout the country for part of the year while he writes new songs.
Or doesn't write songs, as the case may be.
Prine's approach to songwriting can most generously be described as relaxed. He's said before that he'd gladly put down his pen if somebody offered him so much as a hot dog. But in the nine-year period since his last CD of new material, Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, Prine's had to deal with distractions a lot bigger than hot dogs.
In 1997, he was diagnosed with cancer in his neck. He beat it, but the surgery and radiation dropped his voice an octave and left it even more gravelly than usual. He had his hip replaced. In 2001, he took a spill in Ireland and busted his elbow. But the biggest distraction has been his two sons, who are now 9 and 10, the children of his third marriage.
"For 49 years, it was kind of a quirky world for me," he says by phone from Hartsfield. "I'd go wherever I wanted, get up whenever I wanted to. I'd been married twice before, but I never had any children. The children, they tell you when to get up, when to go to bed. It threw me for a loop - a good loop."
Until his children were born, Prine's songwriting depended as much on serendipity as focused effort. "I would just wait until lightning struck. It'd be 4 in the morning and I'd write a song and go back to sleep." He chuckles. "I was never busy before when lightning struck. I was just walkin' around waitin' for a storm."
In his youth, Prine explained (when he visited the Library of Congress earlier this year at the invitation of America's poet laureate Ted Kooser), he was often subject to "spells," as he called them, where it would seem like he was looking down at the room from above. Such spells brought on emotions that led to songs. The best songs, he said, took about as much time to write as they did to sing.
Today, with two kids to chase after, a summer house in Ireland, the responsibilities of running his own record label, and the challenge of maintaining his health, Prine has to fit in his muse when he can.
"In order to write a record, I had to make an appointment with myself," he says with another chuckle.
But his fans can rest easy: Fair & Square, which will be released April 26, is a return to form. Look no further than "She is my Everything," about his wife, Fiona, in which Prine rhymes "Copenhagen" with "eggs and bacon." Or "Some Humans Ain't Human," the last song he wrote for the record. In it, he blasts George W. Bush's Iraq war.
"I don't particularly like protest songs myself because they don't last very long," he says. "Soon as you mention anything about current events, it puts a time limit on the song. But in this case, I started feeling like the stuff that the administration was doing - from the Dixie Chicks on down, the way they came down on anybody saying anything about Iraq - I thought this was pretty crazy. Anyway, I got the feeling if I didn't say something that that would be a 'yes' vote for Bush. So I wanted to make it clear if a bus should hit me tomorrow morning, I wasn't a Republican."
At his shows, Prine even took one of his first songs out of retirement, the self-explanatory "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore." And last fall Prine took part in Vote for Change, the coalition of musicians who tried to mobilize voters to vote Bush out of office. Some of his fans didn't appreciate their guy wearing his politics on his sleeve.
"You think you know who you're playing to. Not that I'm trying to please everybody, but I was surprised that as many people would get as pissed off as they did. In the same letters, they said they'd been following the music for 30 years. You wonder what songs they've been listening to."
Prine laughs again.
"So if nothing else, I feel like I've cleared the board and reminded 'em where I'm comin' from."
Oh, and one more thing - Prine says his next album should come a bit quicker this time around.
"I'm gonna try and do one in three years. You can write that down."
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