This week Daily Music writers look back at — and reconsider — less modern pieces of music.
Folk music intersects with popular music in interesting ways. Classic artists like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and most of all Bob Dylan have taken root in the hearts of fans for generations, and today the genre is being freshly interpreted by contemporary popular artists as disparate as Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers. Folk has had its notable moments, both on the charts of popular music and in coverage by major publications. But as an umbrella with many subgenres, it has also seen more than its fair share of artists falling through the cracks into obscurity.
John Prine falls somewhere in the middle here: He is celebrated among folk fans and music critics alike, but isn't widely known in the popular sphere. When I mention him in conversation to my friend who listens to folk music or ask for his music at a record store, his name is recognized instantly, but in most other conversations, it is met with blank stares. His catalog is almost as extensive as Dylan’s, and his songwriting abilities have been the source of consistent critical praise since his eponymous debut album in 1971, yet his name becomes less generally recognizable with every passing year.
This may be because he has failed to produce any chart-topping singles to launch him into public attention. Many songs, like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” have left a significant enough impact on the general public to preserve their artists’ names in history indefinitely. Curiously, no single song has done this for John Prine, which may account for his relative deficit in popular recognition.
This deficit could also be attributed to Prine’s lyrics. Many of his songs are historically specific, such as 1971’s “Paradise,” which describes the takeover of a small Kentucky town by a coal company. These songs derive some meaning from context, and Prine often approaches their subjects with angles of humor, political criticism, or both. This narrow, specific style of execution and the necessity of context here, may be a few of the reasons Prine is looked back on less frequently than some of his peers. It sometimes takes a certain mood to appreciate these qualities, which can reasonably set them in contrast against the often more widely relatable songs of Cash or Dylan. But these specific lyrics are used to tell stories that hold true emotionally even when removed from the context of history, and they are among the many traits that make him interesting as a songwriter.
Folk music has some history in political protest, and Prine carries on this tradition in his music with a markedly humorous twist, often fixating on characters whose extreme stories reflect ridiculous aspects of our own lives. In his early song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” he calls commercial patriotism into question, narrating the story of a man who crashes his car due to the American flag stickers covering his windshield. With its cheerful tone and hyperbolic ending, it is easy to see how a narrative like this would fit alongside Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” or Phil Ochs’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Sometimes Prine’s music focuses exclusively on humor — like in 1973’s “Dear Abby,” a satire of advice columns — and sometimes it lays the humor aside in favor of a more serious political tone, like in his 2005 song “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” which criticizes President George W. Bush for the American invasion of Iraq.
Prine is a peculiar case in the timeline of American folk music. His personality is unassuming, and his songs have consistently occupied modest but dignified positions on popular music charts since the early seventies. But despite his lack of mainstream popularity, his songs offer eloquent, natural and at times humorous perspectives on the world, and given his lyrical abilities and his lasting influence, he continues to occupy a crucial place in the world of folk music today.