Wednesday, June 17, 2015

John Prine: In Spite of Himself by Eddie Huffman - Book Review

Eddie Huffman's John Prine: In Spite of Himeself (University of Texas Press, March 2015, $24.96/13.99, 224 pages) from the American Music Series effectively explores the music and life of Americana icon John Prine in an admiring, but not uncritical unauthorized biography. Not relying on a subjects cooperation has both advantages and disadvantages for an author. The greatest advantage lies in not having to write uncritically about a person who's necessary to the completion of the work. A disadvantage may be the lack of insight that can be garnered through direct access and close questioning. Fortunately, Prine has, over the years, made himself available through a series of written and recorded interviews as well as in discussion of his own songs on his recordings. Huffman seems to be a serious scholar, carefully mining the wealth of Prine material in print, and in recorded sources, both on video and audio. The result is an admirable piece of work providing insight into the writer, the performer, and the man which leaves only a few unanswered questions for me.

John Prine has spent a long career defying easy classification, to the extent that his body of work has come to help define the genre now known as Americana. His witty word-play and insightful portrait of ordinary people living out their lives has been described as folk, country, rock, and pop though not fully or comfortably fitting into any single category. Prine has influenced and been influenced by bluegrass music. This refusal to be defined down to a single genre may have helped keep his own performances from reaching the top of the charts, but has not kept him from establishing an enduring record of accomplishment as both a singer/songwriter and a unique performer. Born in Maywood, Illinois in 1946 into a family which, like many, had migrated from the coal country of Western Kentucky (Paradise, Muhlenberg County) to the industrial heartland, he had a more or less conventional childhood. His parents gave him an inexpensive guitar on which he began noodling and exploring. He served a tour in the U.S. Army in Germany and, on returning, became a mailman in Chicago. Prine started writing songs and singing for himself in his characteristic gravely voice, eventually taking lessons at the Old Town Music School in Chicago and beginning to sing in small venues, where he was heard by Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman, and Paul Anka, who helped give his career a boost. His first album contained a number of songs which have become standards across genres, including the anti-war song Sam Stone, the often covered Angel from Montgomery, sly Donald & Lydia, and bluegrass standard Paradise. Over his long career he has distinguished himself for the wit of his language, his insight into working people, his musical versatility, and his enduring contributions as a song writer. He has won a Grammy Award and is a member of the American Singer/Songwriter Hall of Fame. While his work has never charted well, he has a large and devoted world-wide fan base. He is the subject of a fan web site called The John Prine Shrine that should be consulted for further information.

Prine's personal life seems to me to have been unremarkable in most ways. He's been married three times, twice to musicians, has a couple of kids who came along relatively late in life, and is a cancer survivor. He long had a pretty serious drinking problem, which affected his performances to the extent that they were noted in critical appraisals of his work. Prine was always a heavy smoker, too. The combination of alcohol and tobacco eventually led to his developing a throat cancer in the late 1990's which was operated on, apparently successfully, but proved to be slightly disfiguring and had some effect on his voice, although not enough to keep him from performing. Huffman covers the personal as well as the musical side of Prine's life, but doesn't answer (or seem to ask) a series of important questions that should animate an exploration of an artist's life and work: Where does it all come from? There's not much in Prine's background, education, or experience to suggest the sources of the enduring creative wellspring of his production. It would be enlightening to know what Prine read, who he listened to, how his life experience animated his writing. Beyond commenting that, as he aged, he (as is typical of artists and other creative people) became less productive and more cooperative, learning to co-write with many other Nashville lights, Huffman runs up against a blank wall in not finding or identifying Prine's sources. It can't all come from a relatively uneventful tour of duty in Germany and several years of pounding the pavement as a mailman. While more than adequately compiling acounts of Prine's work, effect, and influence based on critical writings about him, reviews of his work, and recordings of his conversations with others, Huffman doesn't reach deeply enough into the creative bag that distinguishes Prine's lifetime output.

Eddie Huffman

Eddie Huffman, a ninth- or tenth-generation North Carolinian, has been writing about music legends, muscle cars, obscenity trials, moonshiners, Civil War reenactors, and murderous ventriloquist dummies since before Lady Gaga was born. John Prine: In Spite of Himself is the first book he has written on his own. He has contributed to Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications. He lives in Burlington, North Caroline (from the About section of Huffman's web site.)

John Prine: In Spite of Himeself (University of Texas Press, March 2015, $24.96/13.99, 224 pages) by Eddie Huffman is an interesting and workmanlike closeup of a singer/songwriter whose influence on American music is distinguished by the richness of his language, his often ironic and humorous view of ordinary people living out unremarkable lives, and his long, varied career. While never a chart-topper, Prine's work has influenced and been publicly appreciated by musical greats from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan, and recorded by top country, folk, and pop singers in wonderful covers for forty years. Huffman captures the variety and richness of his work, especially through careful analysis of the critical appraisals available in print and online. The book is well sourced, providing a wealth of further reading and a useful discography for those wishing to push further into the life and work of this important performer. As in many such books, there are extensive, even exhaustive, accounts of where recordings were made, who he performed and produced with, where he performed, and other minutia which readers of such biographies love. I bought the book and read it on my Kindle app.