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John Prine teams up with a host of female singers for new duet project

By Bill Friskics-Warren

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  John Prine's odes to furtive tokers and fractured vets may have earned him the protest singer tag when he emerged from the "new Dylan" pack in the early '70s, but his miniatures have always been too intimate, too empathetic and full of whimsy, to pass for broadsides. Even "Sam Stone," his mordant requiem for a stateside casualty of the Vietnam War, keeps a tender eye trained on the feelings of the protagonist's kids. Here, much as he's done throughout his career, Prine focuses on the relationships, however screwed up, at the heart of the song.

His new album, In Spite of Ourselves, a collection of country chestnuts from the likes of Hank Williams, George Jones, and Jim Reeves, might seem an odd move for a folkie with his own stories to tell. But even a cursory listen to the CD reveals that Prine's aim is true. Every song on the album shines a light on the same sorts of human foibles that his own writing probes. All concern affairs of the heart, and all are done as male-female duets, with Prine pitting his affable croak against the bell-like timbres of Trisha Yearwood, Connie Smith, and a handful of other women working in country and folk circles today.

"I'd been wanting to do an all-duet record for years," explains Prine, who cut half the album before undergoing successful treatment for squamous cell carcinoma near his vocal cords almost two years ago. "I think the best duets are those where there's a dialogue back and forth and then the two singers go into a thing together."

"There's something about hearing a man and a woman singing together, and singing about such intimate stuff," adds Iris DeMent. The Arkansas native teams up with Prine on three of the album's best songs. "You feel like you're getting inside of somebody's private lives a bit."

"It's very exciting when you put a guy and a girl together," echoes Melba Montgomery, who sings with Prine on two of the album's tracks. Montgomery should know. During the 1960s, she and George Jones recorded some of country's steamiest duets, among them the Montgomery-penned "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," a 1963 smash that she and Prine reprise on In Spite of Ourselves.

Prine is no stranger to country music, and not just because the likes of Tammy Wynette, Don Williams, and George Strait have cut his songs. Hillbilly music was just about the only thing he heard around the house while growing up in Maywood, Ill., a blue-collar suburb on the west side of Chicago. "My dad was a big fan," he recalls. "Every night we had country music in the kitchen from like 6 to 9. My dad would sit in there with a couple quarts of beer and have the radio cranked up to WJJD. His favorites were Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and Carl Smith. Of course we grew up with rock 'n' roll and R&B just like all the other teenagers. But I had a real good base in country music. It's always been my favorite."

Prine initially envisioned In Spite of Ourselves as an album of cheating songs, but later abandoned the idea for fear that it might smack too much of novelty. "It would have become a joke--you know, a matter of finding the most outrageous songs that we could. So I thought, 'Well, you can't have cheating if you don't have loving. So you gotta have some songs where the boy and the girl dedicate themselves to each other before they start cheating.' "

Only half the songs on In Spite of Ourselves were originally duets, but all of them plumb the ups and downs of romance. Prine and Patty Loveless dust off "Back Street Affair," a cheating song that went to No. 1 for Webb Pierce in 1952. Prine and Connie Smith take gossips to task on "Loose Talk," another chart-topper, this one for Carl Smith in 1955. And Prine and DeMent revive George and Tammy's "(We're Not) The Jet Set" and throw themselves into "Let's Invite Them Over," an ode to spouse-swapping that Jones and Montgomery took to No. 17 in 1963. Rounding out the album's cast of female leads are Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Irish folksinger Delores Keane, and Prine's wife, Fiona Prine, who, like Keane, is a native of Ireland.

Even singers with twice Prine's range and far better intonation might have found working with these women daunting. But the only time Prine felt truly overawed was when he and Montgomery went into the studio to cut "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds." Buddy Emmons, the steel guitarist who played on Jones and Montgomery's Top 5 duet, was working the session as well.

"I knew Buddy from his playing with the Everlys," says Prine. "But I didn't know that he had played on Melba and George's original. Melba walked in and she sees Buddy Emmons and turns around and says to me, 'You know, Buddy was there when George and I cut this.' So the band kicks in, 1-2-3-4, and I'm thinking, 'I'm singing George Jones' part with George Jones' duet partner and the steel player from the session. What am I doing here?' That's when it hit home for me."

Taking his cue from the men who ran Nashville's recording studios during the '50s and '60s, coproducer Jim Rooney insisted that Prine and his collaborators knock out the disc's tracks in workaday fashion. "Rooney, God bless him, he stood there and, after we did two takes of a song, he'd go, 'That's it,' " Prine recalls. "Everybody, even the musicians, would look at him funny. But he'd be like, 'What else are you gonna do to this?' "

The album's intimate, "live" sound not only bears Rooney's method out, it suits the conversational tenor of the duet format. Still, given the range of voices on the record, Prine and Rooney's off-the-cuff approach could just as easily have backfired. "There was no way to tell how my voice and the girl I was singing with that day was gonna sound," Prine says. "Some voices don't blend. They just kinda rub against each other. I just heard Merle Haggard and Jewel the other night on the radio. It sounded like they were singing in two different worlds."

That's hardly the case with the duets on In Spite of Ourselves, as disheveled as they may be at times. Even the songs that paired Prine and Delores Keane--singers who do live in two different worlds--proved felicitous. "All the girls over there in Ireland are well-versed in American country music," says Prine. "Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline are like king and queen over there. You'll be sitting in a pub in the afternoon and out of nowhere some old guy'll rear his head back and sing [Reeves'] 'He'll Have to Go.' And everybody will just sit up and listen to him."

This sense that anyone can sing a song that was written or popularized by someone else is arguably the subtext of Prine's album. As he points out, it wasn't until recently, with the fetishization of the singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s, that audiences even cared about whether or not performers wrote their own material. By doing an album of covers, Prine refocuses attention on the art of interpretive singing, a move that takes on added meaning coming as it does from one of the major figures of the post-Dylan boom.

Prine nevertheless gets his licks in as a songwriter on the album's title track. The song, a rib-splitting slice-of-life in which a devoted couple paints irreconcilable mental pictures of their marriage, proves that he can more than hold his own with such lunch-pail greats as Bobby Braddock, Roger Miller, and Bill Anderson. In fact, lines like, "He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays/I caught him once sniffin' my undies," suggest that Prine is in a class by himself.

As for the other 16 songs on his album, Prine harbors no illusions about having improved upon the originals. Even so, he says, "I felt like I was wearing the songs enough that if they didn't sound like they were completely my own, then they at least sounded different from the singer that first cut the record."

Much more than that, Prine has given the crucial but oft-maligned male-female duet its due, at the same time forging a link between his own storytelling and that of some of country's greatest singers and songwriters.


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