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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Prine collection delivers early gems

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For more than four decades, John Prine has been sharing his unique point of view with audiences in his native Chicago and around the world. "The Singing Mailman Delivers," his latest collection, is proof that gift was there from the very beginning.
A look at the early work of many artists can be a dicey proposition. "Demo" and "early live performance" can be nice ways of saying you're listening to your favorite artists when they almost had it.

Judging by "The Singing Mailman Delivers," released Oct. 25 on Oh Boy Records, John Prine is not such an artist. The collection of 1970 studio and live recordings is right on the money, showing the rich storytelling Prine carried into his eponymous debut LP and throughout his career.

This isn't simply a collection for Prine's biggest fans -- it has an appeal to anyone who appreciates a singer who can tell a good story.

For decades, Prine has had that rare ability among songwriters to move you with nearly every song. Drop the needle on one of his records and be prepared -- you're going to laugh and you're going to cry. There's little in between.

It's a truly remarkable and rare gift, shared by other singer-songwriters such as Tom T. Hall, Todd Snider and young Jimmy Buffett.

While one might think it would take time to hone this ability, Prine seems to have had it from the beginning. At 23 years old, he had already written gems that would stay with him for four decades, including "Hello In There," "Paradise," "Angel From Montgomery" and "Sam Stone" (which was then titled "Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues").

It also seems Prine did not set out to write great songs, it's a gift that just came to him. During his time working as a mailman in his hometown of Maywood, Ill., he thought up the songs during the monotonous hours.

"I always likened the mail route to a library with no books," Prine said. "I passed the time each day making up these little ditties."

Soon enough, his "little ditties" had him playing throughout Chicago and its suburbs. During this time, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert blindly walked into the Fifth Peg, a Chicago folk club, and heard Prine sing.

Although he wasn't the music critic, Ebert was impressed enough to write a review of the show -- Prine's first review -- in which he dubbed him a "singing mailman."

Contemporary listeners can now get a taste of what Ebert enjoyed that night 41 years ago. The first disc of the collection consists of 11 songs recorded in Chicago's WFMT studios in August. The second disc is of a different Fifth Peg performance from November.

Prine's early career wasn't exactly marked by large arrangements, but the studio performance is especially minimal -- just Prine and his acoustic guitar.

It's interesting to hear "Paradise" without it's trademark fiddle line. Instead, we're left with the power of Prine's words, not browbeating us with an environmentalist message, but simply informing us that "Mr. Peabody's coal train" has permanently altered the land of western Kentucky.

The strength of the second disk is as much in the banter as in the songs. The songs themselves are consistent with the album versions, which is to say they are excellent.

The banter, though, gives us further insight into the wit behind these excellent songs. Prine's intro to "The Great Compromise" is especially enjoyable.

"Ah, 'The Great Compromise,'" he opens. "This is a song me and Francis Scott Key wrote not too long ago. He writes political songs, you know. I write love songs. So we got together and wrote a song ... it's a hate song to a woman I love."

My spin: A

The most amazing thing about John Prine's "The Singing Mailman Delivers" is the consistency of the product. Even as a green songwriter, Prine was able to pen some of the most enduring folk songs of his era.

He seems to have done so simply by being earnest. As a "singing mailman" Prine had a chance to watch the world around him and the time to gather his thoughts.

This collection proves we are all lucky he did.