The missing years

John Prine rebounds from cancer with a triumphant collection of country duets.

Give this man a hot dog!

Give this man a hot dog!

IT’S SOMEHOW appropriate that the new In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy) feels as authentic a John Prine album as any he’s made. Not that you’d expect it to; it’s not strictly a John Prine album. For one thing, everything here, with one exception, is a duet: Nine female singers take turns sharing the mic, including Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, and Prine’s wife, Fiona. For another, though you might swear otherwise if you don’t know any better, the lion’s share of the songs—from the wife-swapping anthem “Let’s Invite Them Over” to the aching melancholy of “I Know One” to the jaunty reunion celebration “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds”—aren’t the work of Prine’s identifiably screwy and tender songwriting hand. Instead, everything except Spite‘s title song is a classic country cover.

John Prine with Iris DeMent

Moore Theatre, Fri-Sat, October 29-30

Prine swears that any deliberate resemblance between the covers he’s chosen and his own work is coincidental. “I’ve been told that since the record’s been out,” he says from his home in Nashville. “I didn’t do it on purpose at all. It makes sense, though—I guess you just naturally drift toward the kind of songs that inspired you in the first place. I guess that’s why I wrote songs like that. Like ‘Jet Set,'” he says, referring to Spite‘s opening number, the George Jones/Tammy Wynette classic “(We’re Not) the Jet Set,” which Prine sings with DeMent. “That line where they rhyme ‘martinis’ and ‘weenies’—that line always stops me dead in my tracks. That’s one of those songs that made me want to find the person who wrote it and write a song with them.” (Prine did write the classic “Unwed Fathers” with “Jet Set” author Bobby Braddock in the early ’80s.)

In Spite of Ourselves has been in the works for a lot longer than the time span separating its release from that of his last album, 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. “I’ve been wanting for about 15 years to do a record with nothing but cheatin’ songs sung with about 10 different women,” he says. “And three years ago, I found someone who wanted to do it with me, [producer] Jim Rooney. So I made a list of some of my favorite songs and singers. After a while I started widening the list—cheating songs seemed too narrow for a whole record.” Once he decided what he wanted, Prine began making calls. “I made a list of 40 singers. I was really nervous—it was like asking a girl to the prom; you want to have a backup just in case. I was expecting three-fourths of them to say no. The first nine said yes.”

He hoped to finish the album in less than a month: “Everything took three takes at the most. Trisha Yearwood came in at five o’clock and left with a tape at 5:35.” By November 1997, the record was halfway finished. Then, after two weeks of recording, Prine hit a snag; a visit to the doctor returned a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer located in the right side of his neck. In January, Prine had surgery to remove a small tumor. Six weeks of radiation therapy followed, after which Prine spent 18 months resting and relaxing. “As soon as I was able to sing again, I dove right back into the recording,” Prine says, adding that he’s now in good health.

The results are worth the wait. In Spite of Ourselves stands alongside anything Prine has ever recorded. And the most encouraging sign of his continuing recovery is that the album’s one original wins best-of-show. “In Spite of Ourselves,” a warts-and-all devotional pledge sung with DeMent, ties the album together so neatly you might think he built the whole thing around it. Actually, it was written as the theme song for the upcoming film Daddy & Them. Director Billy Bob Thornton also tapped Prine to play a supporting role.

Still, Prine’s career remains rooted in songwriting, even if it’s not always the easiest task.

“I avoid writing like the plague,” says Prine. “Once I’m really in the middle of it, I really enjoy it. But I hate the idea of starting a song. I’d rather eat a hot dog.”

Does this reticence stem from worry over equaling past achievements or from sheer laziness? “I’d say it’s an equal amount of both,” Prine says with a laugh.

He’s anything but reluctant to tour, however. “I had to take a year and a half off, and I enjoy playing live more now than I think I ever did in the past. I have two little babies, so I like being at home a lot, too. But I get a big charge from playing live. If I could make records like that, I would, but you can’t make all live records.”

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