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John Prine and Iris DeMent were seated across from each other at a table for eight in Michael's on West 55th Street. Here BMI had convened a small party to celebrate George Strait's conversion of the obscure Prine copyright "I Just Want To Dance With You" into a hit that paid Prine's hospital bills while he fought off cancer of the neck in 1998. Prine is a genially impish guy who wears his grayish-black hair in a long crew cut. He looks his age whether it's 55, as he told me, or 52, as the books say, but like so many musicians he doesn't act it. He has a storyteller's memory, conjuring details from years back about anything, and without claiming a monopoly or even seeming immodest, he did most of the talking. Among the topics I recall: Prine's collaborator on the Strait song, obsessive Australian-Nashvillian craftsman Roger Cook; God d/b/a Sam Phillips threatening to kick Prine's ass all the way to the Houston clinic that saved his life; a bar for midgets on Roosevelt Road in Chicago; Prine's forthcoming Billy Bob Thornton movie, Daddy and Them, which generated the title song of his DeMent-heavy duet cover album, In Spite of Ourselves;how to roast pork with German wine; regaining 40 lost pounds on an apple pie diet; Prine and his late buddy Steve Goodman's Kris Kristofferson brokered courtship by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and Buddah's Neil Bogart, making them the first Chicago artists ever to sign with a major without emigrating first; and the only time he actually boasted his skill at buying shoes for his third wife, Fiona.
Early on Prine pulled out snapshots of his two preschool boys "Irish twins" 10 months apart who were honored guests at their parents' wedding. They're his first kids, and he's officially hooked. Knowing that happy marriages have taken the piss and vinegar out of many songwriters, he mused about how he would cope "I could become a peeping Tom and write about the neighbors." But although "In Spite of Ourselves" is his only new song in three years, he's too glad to be alive to let that worry him in 1992, he predicted that the Grammy-winning The Missing Yearsmight be his last album, only to produce the even better Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessingsin 1995. Before long the conversation moved on to Prine's dad, a frequenter of country-music bars who for an extra 50 bucks a month served as president of his machinists' local and always planned to take his boys back to Kentucky. This impossible dream inspired Prine's "Paradise," and Prine told how his father first listened to the acetate from the next room, so it would sound like it was on a jukebox. He died young, at 56, shortly after losing a union election.
I glanced over at DeMent, who had silently pumped her fist at the news that Prine's dad was a union man. To my astonishment, she was trying to wipe tears from her eyes without making a fuss. The guy from BMI leaned over and quietly asked if she was OK. Yes, she nodded, then murmured, "It was just such a moving story." A minute later, she entered the conversation. What she wanted to know was how old Prine was when he realized he was something special. She posed the question in several versions, and Prine listened up good. But without wasting any false modesty, he never really answered. This wasn't something he worried about either.
Afterwards Prine walked DeMent down Fifth Avenue to go watch themselves on Conan O'Brien, where the powers that be had liked "In Spite of Ourselves" so much they didn't bleep out the dirty words. At home, I watched too. Unfortunately for TV purposes, Prine's voice was less mellifluous than ever. Throat radiation can do that to you.
If DeMent had seemed a bit fragile at Michael's, at Town Hall Thursday she bounced out like a trouper, proudly displaying her red thrift-store heels over the footlights. At 38, the late-blooming DeMent has grown into the role thrust upon her by her big, high, Holiness-steeped soprano. But she's in the middle of a divorce, and the songs aren't coming her unaccompanied 30-minute set included only one that postdated 1996's The Way I Should. Her speaking voice was an octave lower than the one she sang in. Introducing one of the several songs she's written about her late father, she told how she'd cried at dinner.
DeMent is an original, and her performance proved that power doesn't always require speed. But half an hour later, Prine burst onstage with rockabilly-looking guitarist Jason Wilbur and balding bassist David Jacques, launched the "Blow up your TV" chorus of the time-tested "Spanish Pipedream," and took over. Even before his voice loosened up he was lit, radiantly explaining why he was "really glad to be here tonight." He'd become a medium for the glow I'd heard him describe Tuesday the glow that surrounds the things of this world after you've beaten a command to leave it.
Making things glow has always been a Prine specialty anyway. Even at the beginning, he wasn't the "protest" singer he's still said to be: blowing up your TV was a prelude to throwing away your newspaper, eating lots of peaches, and finding Jesus on your own. When the Rolling Stone Encyclopediapraises his depictions of "white proletarian America," I wonder whether the writer grew up in a world so rarefied it lacked frying pans, slippers, umbrellas, knick-knack shelves, and four-way stop signs, to name a few of the everyday objects that figure on the four terrific albums that got the young Prine not far enough between 1971 and 1975. Prine is like Bobbie Ann Mason, or early Barry Levinson, or a Nashville songwriter going for quality, which in fact is what he's become. I'd call him an American realist except that often he's also an American humorist, which brings out his omnipresent surrealism associative leaps from an imagination that's known a normal life's complement of consciousness enhancers, though Prine cut down on his drinking years ago. His realism, his surrealism, and his laugh lines all shoulder the fundamentally celebratory function of language in love especially language born from the spirit of music. Prine's adoration of the turned cliché ("Some day you'll own a home/That's as big as a house") and the newly minted idiom (lovemaking as "the land of the lost surprise") transfigures even such oppressed proletarians as Donald and Lydia masturbating in two different worlds, or the isolated old wife of "Angel From Montgomery," although not the Vietnam junkie of "Sam Stone," which as Prine's best-known song has always made him seem more maudlin than he is.