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 Years might be his last album, only to produce the even better Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings in 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 Encyclopedia praises 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.
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 Days comp barely falters for 41 tracks, and after that you can go back to Sweet Revenge or Common Sense, to name just two. Yet between 1980’s Storm Windows and 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 Ourselves are 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 Ourselves include 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.