Graeme Thomson

Can there ever be an objective definition of what constitutes a great song? Perhaps not, but a songwriter is surely entitled to congratulate themselves on a solid day’s work when everyone from Alfie Boe to Cameo can take a swing at one of their compositions without inflicting a mortal blow. So it is with John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, a post-war American prayer which captures infinite shades of loss and longing in three stanzas and a chorus.

Prine’s masterpiece has attracted more than its fair share of admirers over the years. As well as light opera singers and cod-pieced funkateers, the song has been covered by John Denver, Maggie Rogers and, most famously, Bonnie Raitt, whose 1974 recording lays persuasive claim to being the definitive version. Last month, Raitt performed it at the Grammys, where Prine was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award in recognition of a half century spent writing extraordinary songs about ordinary lives.

Angel From Montgomery typifies his gift for what Bob Dylan once described as “Proustian existentialism” and “Midwestern mind-trips”. It’s all the more impressive as Prine still doesn’t quite understand how he does it.

“I know less about songwriting than I thought I knew 50 years ago,” says the man who has also been feted by Kris Kristofferson, Tom Petty, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen.

“Writing is a strange occupation. You have to take your mind off of it to let it open up. I write from instinct. I either feel like writing and I have an idea that I want to pursue – or I don’t. I can’t for the life of me figure out why somebody would want to sit down and write a song when you’ve got nothing to write a song about.”

Prine emerged from the Chicago coffee house scene with his eponymous debut album, released in 1970 on Atlantic. It contained a handful of songs which have since become standards; not only Angel From Montgomery, but Sam Stone, Paradise and Hello In There.

Since then, he has established a reputation as one of America’s most distinctive singer-songwriters. His last album, The Tree Of Forgiveness, released in 2018, was his sixteenth, and showed an artist in fine creative fettle. He just takes a little more persuading these days, that’s all. The Tree Of Forgiveness emerged fully 13 years after its predecessor, Fair & Square.

“I had no idea it had been that long, because the touring has been so good,” says Prine from his home in Nashville. “We’ve been taking leaps and bounds in the last few years. Loads of young people have started coming, along with the older folks, it’s been bigger audiences. I was so taken with that, I thought it had been only four years or so since I put a record out.”

Prine is managed by his wife, Fiona, while his son Jody runs his record label, Oh Boy. “They came to me said, ‘It’s time to make a record.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me, I just made one!’ They said it was 13 years ago.”

He claims that he completed the songs for the album under duress. “I had to go into the studio the next week, and I needed to have at least ten songs. My wife and son put me in a hotel here in Nashville and gave me 10 boxes of half written songs, three guitars and a ukulele, and left me alone for a week.”

He laughs. “It’s impossible for me to impose discipline by myself. I’m totally undisciplined, that was always the case. When I discovered that this was my job and not my hobby, the first thing I wanted to do was run the other way. I don’t like work. If I can make it fun, or be with somebody and enjoy their company, that’s different. I try to write with friends. We go fishing, we shoot pool, and then we write while we’re goofing off.”

All of which helps explain why the 10 songs on The Tree Of Forgiveness include several co-writes, among them two written with The Black Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach. Auerbach was introduced to Prine by David Ferguson, who recorded and engineered the remarkable final run of albums by Johnny Cash.

“Ferg was working with Dan and he introduced us,” says Prine. “We went out to lunch and we ended up writing a song, and that kicked us off. We got together and in two days we wrote eight songs. I thought the songs he co-wrote on my album were for his solo record, but there were four which he hadn’t recorded, so I thought I’d sing them.”

Prine made a characteristic alteration to the song Boundless Love, adding an opening verse which included a line about frying up some pork chops so that “it sounded more like me. I called Dan up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve John Prined your song!’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You know, I just made it a little more my own.’”

He enjoys the process of collaboration and has been doing more of it lately. “That’s what everyone in Nashville does and I finally gave into it. It’s actually really nice, because on my own I can find a million excuses not to do it, but if I have an appointment with somebody, then I show up at least with ideas. I might make up a list of 20 titles – ridiculous ones, good ones, bad ones – and I’ll read them to my partner and it might spark something.”

Perhaps because he has generally refused to dress up his country-folk songs in anything other than the plainest, most hard-wearing clothes, Prine remains one of those artists whose material tends to travel further when sung by others. Johnny Cash, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones and George Strait have all enjoyed notable success with his compositions.

“I kept waiting for me to have a hit of my own,” he laughs. “But there are a lot of covers I’m very proud of. The Alabama 3 did a great version of Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness. The Everly Brothers did Paradise years ago, and that’s a pretty cool one to have on your wall. Bette Midler doing Hello In There is a favourite, and Bonnie Raitt got Angel From Montgomery around the world. Every time I hear a woman sing that song, I can tell right away if they got it off of Bonnie’s record as opposed to mine. I just can tell. Most of them have gotten it from Bonnie…”

George Strait’s 1998 rendition of I Just Want To Dance With You has particular resonance. “When I had cancer the first time, I was down in Texas doing radiation after I’d had surgery. I walked down to my rented car one day from the hospital, I turned the radio on, and George Strait was singing I Just Want To Dance With You. It went to number one and it paid for all my hospital bills. The timing of that was incredible.”

Prine was diagnosed with cancer of the neck in 1998, and in 2013 he underwent an operation to remove a tumour from his lung. Happily, he recovered both times to continue playing and recording. Earlier this month, he received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy award, having won previously in the Folk and Americana categories for The Missing Years and Fair & Square.

“The ones I normally get nominated for, the awards are usually given out in the afternoon,” he says. “It’s like the little bastard son of the Grammys. My wife has always wanted to go to the televised one, and she finally got to. It’s pretty nice. I’d rather get an award for what I’ve been doing for 50 years than have one for a hit song that is gone nine months from now. This is for the body of work and I appreciate it.”

The final song on The Tree Of Forgiveness is called When I Get To Heaven, and it feels somewhat valedictory. Not so, says Prine. At 73, he retains a keen appetite to continue performing as long as possible and promises we won’t have to wait another decade for his next record. “I’m writing it right now,” he says. “I hope to have a new album by the fall of 2021. For me, that’s pretty fast! I’m planning on doing other things besides going to heaven. I’m going to make a few stops first.”

John Prine plays the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday, February 23