A Hard-Earned Triumph
Rebounding from cancer, John Prine returns with a tribute to the country duet.
By Chris Herrington
APRIL 3, 2000: Most music lovers will handicap Springsteen at The Pyramid as show of the year -- and it's hard to argue with that -- but I'll place my bet on this Saturday's John Prine and Iris Dement set. Sure, the Boss has, justifiably, a better live rep than the man who beat him in the "New Dylan" sweepstakes by a couple of years, but while the current Springsteen tour seems to be a nostalgia bone thrown to the faithful after a disappointing decade, John Prine's return (three years after a bout of neck cancer) has the feel of hard-earned triumph.
Prine's new album, the utterly charming In Spite of Ourselves, is likely the finest of his 30-year career and is a better record than Springsteen has produced in nearly 15 years. A tribute album to a gone-but-not-forgotten genre, the old-time country duet song, In Spite of Ourselves features guest turns from nine different female country singers over the span of 15 songs. The singers range from classic country belles Connie Smith and Melba Montgomery to new country divas Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless to semi-pop goddesses Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. But the extraordinary Iris Dement gets the most valuable partner award for her work on four of the 15 tracks.
It seems odd that a man known primarily as a songwriter has made his finest record with an album that includes only one original song, the title track. But the conceptual and organizational genius of In Spite of Ourselves surely qualifies as a different -- and equally valid --form of authorship. In a way, the record is a companion piece to Billy Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie tribute Mermaid Avenue, another cultural rescue attempt that seemed to be an achievement greater than any of its participants (including Guthrie).
For Prine, the collection of songs on In Spite of Ourselves embodies the finest principles of country music.
"Country music was once a place of truth and people being honest about how lives were really lived," he says. "It won't ever seem thought out, even though the people writing them looked at every single syllable. It feels just as natural as conversation, and the people singing them are people you believe would be saying or doing what they're singing."
And "conversation" is the key. In the album's liner notes, Prine writes that "there's something about two people singing to each other or about each other and finally with each other that sounds really good to me."
Initially, with a working title of Meetin', Cheatin', and Retreatin', the musical give-and-take was limited to sparring.
"Originally, it was all cheatin' songs, but we moved beyond that. But in the beginning, the attitude was 'if it ain't cheatin, it's gossip ... .' and that got us started," Prine says.
What he ended up with is something far grander than that initial goal. It's an album about what we talk about when we talk about love -- electricity and lust, recriminations and regret, doubt, disillusionment, and devotion. The record has the air of an eternal back-and-forth, an ancient, enduring sermon on love and fidelity delivered by two life-partners, alternately in harmony or counterpoint. It's an album suffused with bawdy humor and casual grace, where lyrical insight is matched by vocals that seem to know much more than they say.
On the opening "(We're Not) The Jet Set" ("We're the old Chev-ro-let set, but ain't we got love?"), Prine and Dement turn the beautifully cornpone George Jones-Tammy Wynette class anthem about small towns, American cars, and country music into a homespun hymn to contentment and solidarity. On the brow-raising Jones-Melba Montgomery classic "Let's Invite Them Over," probably the only top-10 country song about spouse-swapping, it's thrilling to hear the normally demure Dement sing so matter-of-factly about extra-marital lust.
"That they want the other couple is so convenient," Prine says of the song. "It's not like you have to invite six other people over to get to the ones you want. It's an even-Steven deal."
But best of all is the new title track, in which Prine magically conjures one of the all-time great love songs at a time when it seemed they had all been written. Pairing Prine's lovable, leathery drawl with Dement's gospel-steeped soprano, it's a paean to moon-June-spoon movie love that manages to be both lovably sappy and tough-minded -- a pas de deux that alternates resigned, risqué character descriptions ("Caught him one time and he was sniffin' my undies. He ain't real sharp..."; "Convict movies make her horny") with pledges of eternal devotion.
But if Prine is the ringmaster of In Spite of Ourselves, Iris Dement is the ringer.
"She's got this sorta wide-eyed wonder, but there's a hard part to her, too, sorta like a school teacher," Prine says of his star collaborator and touring partner. "But with that voice, she sounds like she could've been a big star back in the '30s."
The earth angel Dement may well be the most inspired singer on the planet these days. On In Spite of Ourselves she dominates some pretty formidable competition, and the good news is that, in concert, she'll take all of the female parts, in addition to a solo set of her own. Anyone who witnessed her luminous performance at the Hi-Tone last year knows how special she is, and four years and counting since her last album -- 1996's revelatory The Way I Should -- and with nothing new forthcoming, the opportunity to see her perform is almost as rare a treat as that of seeing a rejuvenated Prine.
They may not play three hours (or, then again, they may), but the Prine and Dement show is as sure to be a passion play en route to the promised land as that fellow traveler from Jersey's was.
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