John Prine Looks Back at an Excellent Year, and to the Grammys

  • John Prine has received three Grammy Award nominations from his latest album, "The Tree of Forgiveness." (Danny Clinch)

Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, December 19, 2018

If you think the impact of a Grammy Award nomination, or win, ever fades over time, try asking John Prine.

The veteran folk singer and songwriter just collected three more Grammy nods from his latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness, yet he talks about his first nomination as though it were yesterday rather than 46 years ago.

“My first Grammy nomination? I was 24. I was nominated for best new artist of the year,” Prine said recently from a tour stop in Toronto. “To still be in the game now is just great.”

The Grammy love is just the latest expression of admiration and respect heaped on him over the last year. In September he was named artist of the year by the Americana Music Association, and last month — on the same day — he was announced among the finalists for induction into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Prine didn’t make the Rock Hall, which announced new inductees last Thursday.)

The latter two organizations are recognizing the body of work Prine has amassed since emerging in 1970 from Chicago with an extraordinary debut album, John Prine. That collection contained several songs that not only have become cornerstones of his own repertoire, but have been interpreted by others, among them Angel From Montgomery (most famously by Bonnie Raitt) and Hello in There (Bette Midler).

The Americana honor focuses on his newest work, The Tree of Forgiveness, which was lauded by critics upon its release earlier this year. In addition to the Americana album Grammy nomination, two songs are vying for the Americana roots song Grammy: Knockin’ on Your Screen Door and Summer’s End, both written with his frequent songwriting collaborator Pat McLaughlin.

Screen Door applies a humorous, devil-may-care veneer to a more serious theme about growing old alone, while Summer’s End is an achingly bittersweet portrait of someone trying to patch things up after a relationship has disintegrated.

Valentines break hearts and minds at random

That ol’ Easter egg ain’t got a leg to stand on

Well I can see that you can’t win for tryin’

And New Year’s Eve is bound to leave you cryin’

“The attention the record’s gotten has really knocked me out,” Prine said. “That wasn’t something that was totally expected — the fact that it wasn’t just an initial reaction when the record came out, but that it’s stayed throughout the year, I’m really grateful. It’s a good feeling to have when you’re 72.”

The latest nominations bring his total to 14, and he’s won Grammys twice, both for contemporary folk album: The Missing Years (1988) and In Spite of Ourselves (1999).

In addition to the awards consideration directed at him, Prine also has earned a place of admiration among an entire generation of literate singer-songwriters. His name is consistently at or near the top of the list of influential songwriters cited by the likes of Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson and numerous others.

As candid in his speech as in his songs, Prine converses with characteristic good humor. At 72, having come through several rounds of treatment for cancer and still writing, recording and touring, he sees little reason to pull any punches when discussing his hopes for the Grammy Awards ceremony that will play out Feb. 10 .

“There are a lot of people in Americana who have never won one before,” he said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m being a hog, but it really would be nice to win. For Oh Boy (Records, his own label), it would be really important. It would give the label a big boost. Oh Boy is still doing great for as long as we’ve been around.”

Prine started Oh Boy in 1981, primarily as a mail-order business. He was in the vanguard of musicians stepping away from the major label system to take control over their recordings. The label is now run by his son, Jody, while his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, has been overseeing his tour bookings and career decisions since the death in 2015 of his longtime manager, Al Bunetta.

His nomination for the Rock Hall of Fame, a club that includes Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, put him in line to join one of his dearest, departed friends, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips — the man who, among other things, directed Prine to a cancer specialist in Texas three decades ago whom Prine credits with saving his life.

“I’d love to be at that party,” he said with a gravelly chuckle.

“I don’t know if it will come this year, my first time I’ve been nominated,” he said several days before the inductees were announced. “But it sure would be nice to get there while I’m still walking.”