Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line. It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter. To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure. The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads. In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress. It is the common song and in it is America.
John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting. Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain. One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High. Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs. Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.” How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.
“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him. It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female. So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation). But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode. On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”
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