Friday, May 16, 2008

John Prine: The voice, and words, of an angel

Posted By on Fri, May 16, 2008 at 4:41 PM

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One of the many charms of singer/songwriter John Prine is the stark contrast of under-stated delivery of such evocative lyrics. It’s as if Prine is almost embarrassed by the power of his poetry, like he’s let a secret out of a bag he’d promised to secure, but understands the secret’s out and should then be told properly.

And for a man who’s sung songs about those living along life’s humbler edges, Prine sings as beautifully about women as he has about men. He’s masculine yet thoughtful. Nowhere is that more apparent than in “Angel From Montgomery,” which Prine wrote in 1971 for his debut, eponymous CD. It’s a bittersweet song about yearning, from a woman who wonders if life (and her husband) has left her by …

I am an old woman named after my mother /

My old man is another child that's grown old /

If dreams were lightning thunder was desire /

This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.

Prine explains the inspiration for the song before singing it on the edge of a river …

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The song, of course, has been covered by just about everybody smart enough to recognize its power, the most famous coming from Bonnie Raitt. (I often wonder why the modern-day Raitt remains so fascinated with the power of gloss and production sheen, or artifice, in her songs since she’s at her best when she keeps it simple.) But the song also was used to great effect in Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild (reviewed here by Felicia Feaster), about the former Emory University student Christopher McCandless who checked out from civilization on an ill-fated journey of self-discovery. In the scene, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) turns an awkward attempt at seduction by a nubile teen (Kristen Stewart) into something more meaningful.

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Powerful stuff. The one time I heard him perform the song live, about five years ago in New Orleans, you could tell his voice was struggling; he was probably still in the grips of the throat cancer he appears to have licked. And yet it damn near moved me to tears. You could fee the song's impact throughout the room.

Even though Prine could be forgiven for being tired of performing this timeless tune, here’s hoping he’ll delight Atlantans — who live only a couple hours from that now-fabled city — with “Angel From Montgomery” one more time when he plays the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Saturday night. Not that his recent work isn't worth listening to — including his 2005 Grammy-winning comeback album, Fair & Square, and last year's duet album with Mac Wiseman, Average Songs for Average People. It's just that this song never, every gets old, even if the heroine of the song believes she has.

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