Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Exclusive: John Prine On 'The Tree Of Forgiveness,' Protest Music & More
John Prine may not be a household name – unless you're a songwriter. Since Prine released his groundbreaking self-titled debut album in 1971, he's written some of the most heartfelt, clever, quirky, and enduring songs of his generation. In April of this year, the 71-year-old unleashed his first new batch of original tunes in 13 years with The Tree Of Forgiveness. The songs feel as natural and essential as Prine's classics, and to no one's surprise — except maybe his own — the folk and country music communities have taken quite a shine to his new material.
Prine stopped by backstage at the Newport Folk Festival to talk with us about how the album came together, the importance of imagery in lyrics, folk music's power of protest, and a few of his songwriting secrets.
The new music video for "Knockin' On My Screen Door" features tons of all-star cameos, [including Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Dan Auerbach, and more]. How did the video collaboration with all of those folks come together?
I'd worked with everybody in the video, and some of them were really good buddies of mine. It just felt like a normal day for me because I go to lunch with half of those people, and I co-own a studio with Fergie [David Ferguson] and that's where Sturgill cut his record, and we cut Tyler Childers over there, felt like old home week. The fact that we got a video out at the end of the day, I thought that was pretty good.
Your latest album, The Tree Of Forgiveness, felt like a gift to your fans; to get all-new music from you was a real treat. How did it feel to write and record a new collection of songs for the first time in quite a while?
It was actually one of the easiest records I've ever made. It wasn't that I didn't believe in all the songs, I just I thought I was going to the studio to get maybe four songs that I liked, get them recorded, then take a break and write some more. But things were going so good. I kept remembering songs I hadn't done ... and that would turn out great, one after another. But the big surprise for me is that my records usually get received by my audience really good, but this record is something that's crazy. It's got stardust on it or something. It just keeps [going]. It's got legs and it keeps on running around, and we do all 10 songs every night in our show. … It's just a great feeling.
I've noticed a lot of younger songwriters are using tools out of your toolbox, and you can hear it in the songs of Kasey Musgraves and Margo Price, who both name you as an influence. What does it feel like to influence this next generation of songwriters?
Both these people that you're talking about are so good anyway, and then when they tell me that they took certain things from the way I wrote, it's such a huge compliment. It takes me awhile to hear what it is that they think is like John Prine that they put in their song, but after a while, I can tell. And it's just a big compliment really.
One of those devices I've always loved about your writing is your incredible use of imagery.
Thank you. I try to include stuff that everybody can relate to. If you're talking about a subject or an emotion that's hard to put your finger on while you're talking about it. If you mention there's a chair and an ashtray in the song, then everybody starts relating to the ashtray and the chair, and pretty soon they get caught up in the emotion, and boom you got them.
We're learning all the secrets here today.
That's it. That's my one secret. [laughs]
It's a good one. When we were driving to the festival today here in Newport, we saw a billboard with you and some lyrics from "Summer's End." Can you talk a little bit about writing that song?
I wrote it with my good buddy Pat McLaughlin. Pat and I have been buddies for going on 35 years, and we didn't write together maybe the first five years we knew each other, we were just buddies. And then, with The Missing Years, we started writing together. By the time we got around to just writing "Summer's End," when we go to write, we almost finish each other's sentences. So, it's hard to tell even after you sing the song where my mind left off and Pat's came in or vice versa. ... On that particular thing, we were throwing images back and forth and we both liked them so much. The only thing we had to stop for was to see if they phrased or occasionally rhymed. We went for this general mood. We didn't talk about what we were going for, we just kept throwing images back and forth at each other to see if we were on the same plain, and it just worked out to be a really beautiful song.
Folk music has always had a mainline into the protest sentiment. What does the song "Caravan Of Fools" mean to you?
I wrote it with Pat McLaughlin, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and our good friend David Ferguson that has the studio that I was talking about. We wrote six songs in two days. We were just hanging out. ... They could have said, 'Come on over, we're gonna play cards.' Instead, they said, 'Come on over we're gonna write songs.' … I knew Dan Auerbach was getting ready to do his first solo record, and so I thought that the songs were supposed to be for Dan. And we wrote, like I say, six songs in nothing. I made everybody break for an hour to go get White Castle hamburgers, and then we went back to writing.
The reason that I'm saying that about "Caravan Of Fools" being taken as a political song is to me when I sing it. But I never asked any of those guys if they were writing about anything [in particular] or what their politics were or anything. It's just that the song to me has a connotation I would say of what's going on. And it's got more verses then there are original members of Trump's cabinet too. … When I'm singing it, it's a protest song.