John Prine’s music on The Tree of Forgiveness is alert and nimble – not at all a retreat to the folkie bar.
By Milo Miles
John Prine’s most famous lines are from “Sam Stone” on his 1971 debut: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm/Where all the money goes/And Jesus Christ died for nothing/I suppose.” Clearly intended to be an anthem for the era when America came to grips with veterans’ PTSD from the Vietnam War. Which, of course, never happened. A surprise from the same album is that Prine has said his favorite track is perhaps the most obscure, “Far From Me.” A very calm tune with casual-voice matter-of-fact lyrics, it slips right by until you give extra attention and hear that it’s a guy’s heartbreaking realization that he and Cathy have fallen out of love. If you don’t have John Prine (Atlantic Off Roster), you should – and you should check out “Far From Me” as a top example of Prine’s fascination with the ways a story can be told.
The renewed relevance of that album’s “Hello in There” also matters. Unusual in its day as a tune that explored the lonely isolation of seniors, it came to sound a little glib with passing years. But now it’s an essential prelude to Prine’s newest, The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy), because he’s all too aware, at 71 and a cancer survivor, he’s become one of the ones in there in need of a hello. The first song, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” affirms the situation with references to “I once had a family/But they up and left me/With nothin’ but an eight track” and “I can hear the train tracks through the laundry on the line.”
Prine’s impossibly precise words draw you in first here because storytelling is the ageless adventure of the album. The music is alert and nimble – not at all a retreat to the folkie bar – centered on Dave Cobb’s acoustic guitars, Mike Webb’s keyboards (lotta mellotron), Dave Jacques’s bass, and Kevin Blevins’s drums and percussion. And while Prine has become a shade misty about social and political issues (“Caravan of Fools” … hmmm), he’s updated and embraced his flair for rebellion and defiance.
“Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” kicks off with an undeniable grim truth: “If you like your apples sweet/And your streets are not concrete/You’ll be in your bed by nine every night.” Then a jaunty, almost smart-ass tune lays out how the crazy-bone impulses of a youth hanging out downtown “with your flick backed/Brylcreem hair your Luckies/And your Daddy’s fine toothed comb” live on inside a nursing home gramps who pisses his bed. “When all them nurses say/Grandpa, Why you walk that way?’/Just blame it on that old Crazy Bone.” Dark chuckles and double meanings of “bone” more than welcome.
The ride never stops being alternately fun and thoughtful, but the coup on The Tree of Forgiveness is the finish, “When I Get to Heaven,” which describes an afterlife so dense and varied I predict it will never go to oldies heaven. Prine gives thanks for the blessings of his life, forgives those who have done him harm – like those parasitic critics (both of ’em – I remember hordes of positive reviews) – and hooks up with his late relatives, even as he decides he can repeat for eternity what he did on earth with rock and roll and showbiz. Prine presents a party that never has to end: “Yeah, when I get to heaven/I’m gonna take/That wristwatch off my arm/What are you gonna do with time/After you bought the farm.”
Go get in on an evening of the mortal action with Prine on June 15 at The Boch Center Wang Theater.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.