By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
I could quote Prine's big houseful of first-rate work forever, make you wish you knew him by heart the way I did when he brought out "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" at Town Hall, which though it had been a decade still had me singing "Voted for Eisenhower/'Cause Lincoln won the war" on the first chorus. He performed for two hours without sinking below "Sam Stone," an exceedingly well-written piece, and there were plenty more where those came from Rhino's Great Dayscomp barely falters for 41 tracks, and after that you can go back to Sweet Revengeor Common Sense, to name just two. Yet between 1980's Storm Windowsand 1992's The Missing Years, the quality flagged his only selection from the period wasn't "I Just Want To Dance With You" but the withering "Unwed Fathers," written with Bobby Braddock, one of the many songsmiths and sidemen who've revved his tune sense since he got to Nashville. Prine's fondness for Braddock types is one reason the novelties and cheating songs of In Spite of Ourselvesare a perfect way for him to keep his hand in until his muse feels as glad to be alive as he does. The other is that he doesn't have to sing so much. His soft-burred drawl is real lovable once you get to know it, but that doesn't mean Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris and Dolores Keane and Lucinda Williams and Fiona Prine and creaky old Connie Smith and Melba Montgomery aren't welcome additions to his soundscape.
Yet with all due respect, Iris DeMent cuts every one of these ladies. Her four tracks on In Spite of Ourselvesinclude two all-time George Jones gems, Braddock's beyond-cornball Tammy feature "(We're Not) The Jet Set" ("We're the old Chevro-let set)", and the impossible "Let's Invite Them Over," which had George and Melba spouse-swapping in the c&w top 10 in 1964. DeMent joined Prine about an hour into his set; reticent on "Milwaukee Here I Come," she picked up steam on "Jet Set" and an eye-rolling "Let's Invite Them Over" and owned Yearwood's part on "When Two Worlds Collide." Then it was time for "In Spite of Ourselves," where her first verse begins, "He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays/Caught him once and he was sniffin' my undies." DeMent is rightly known as a good girl. The few sexual references in her writing are indirect. But she sang those lines with an unflappable gusto worthy of Loretta Lynn or Belle Starr and topped Prine throughout, as she was meant to. A good portion of the standing O at the end was for her.
"In Spite of Ourselves," in which a husband and wife who love each other to death paint wildly disparate pictures of their marriage, is the comic masterpiece of someone whose family ways have left his bodily fluids intact. Prine and the band immediately obliterated it with a loud blues and two 1995 copyrights, including the surreal history of a wrecked marriage, "Lake Marie," a mostly recited flag-waver that's climaxed his shows since he put it out. It must be daunting for a songwriter in a dry spell to witness such an endless catalogue unfold from the wings, even one who almost stole the show.
Returning for the encore, DeMent was subdued on "Unwed Fathers" and "So Sad," then perked up on "Paradise," with all its evocations of father, struggle, and a transformed past. It was just a show. She'd established that when she kicked up her heels. But in this kind of music the show feeds off direct emotion the vivid joy and complex regrets of people with a new lease on life, people who cry at dinner. Together, John Prine and Iris DeMent had established that too.