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John Prine (Courtesy Image)

The Centennial Sound: Oh Boy, John Prine, revered country star and unlikely indie music darling

John Prine with the Colorado Symphony planned for Sunday July 28, 2019 has been cancelled due to health concerns by the artist. Tour dates have been postponed.

John Prine isn’t the kind of act most audiences associate with indie music. At 72, the aging songwriter’s lovable irreverent country persona puts him almost directly at odds with the genre’s sleek, youthful trappings. But lean in a little closer, and the links betweens between Prine’s music and the collective DIY indie aesthetic become hard to ignore.

For almost 40 years, Prine has been releasing music through Oh Boy Records, a label he co-founded in 1981. Today, Oh Boy happens to the longest-operating indie label in Nashville history, where the singer and his wife Fiona currently reside. He has managed to win over a cast of hip, young musical tastemakers including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Brandi Carlile, and legions of devoted fans who were born long after Prine started composing folk music in the early 1970’s. Prine’s catalogue of original songs and covers currently averages at over one million unique listeners a month on Spotify, a music streaming platform used by far more twenty and thirty-something users than ones that are in their 70’s like the Illinois-born musician.

Prine’s unpretentious poetic perspective and striking knack for humorous lyricism might be the secret behind his appeal with younger audiences, with hilarious and heartfelt efforts like “In Spite of Ourselves,” a duet with Iris DeMent that was released in 1999: “She thinks all my jokes are corny / Convict movies make her horny / She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs/ Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs /She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’ / I’m never gonna let her go.” Authenticity is something the indie genre seems eager to chase down and celebrate, and Prine is as genuine as they come.

Last year, Prine released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first collection of new and previously unfinished songs since 2005. Some songs on the album were written recently and others are efforts that were first conceived of decades ago that are just now seeing the light of day. One such song is “God Only Knows,” (not to be confused with Brian Wilson’s sublime song) which was co-written by Phil Spector long before the actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in the infamous producer’s home in 2003.

To help the legendary songwriter complete the album, Prine’s wife booked him a room at Nashville’s Omni Hotel for a week. “I said, ‘If anybody sees me checking into the Omni, they’ll figure Fiona and I are on the outs,” he jokes in the bio posted on his website. With a career spanning over half a century filled with countless dates on the road, it’s safe to assume that John Prine is more than a little used to writing music in unfamiliar hotel rooms. The week-long songwriting exercise proved fruitful with Prine feeling ready to hit the studio by the time he checked out of his room.

The Tree of Forgiveness isn’t as much of a musical or thematic a departure as it is a creative reaffirmation for Prine, which is a good thing seeing that he doesn’t have anything left to prove. But this doesn’t mean he has nothing left to offer. Far from it. Like most of Prine’s work, his newest offering is a modest record that manages to feel emotionally profound and concisely wise for featuring such simple instrumentation and production. Prine enlisted the help of Dave Cobb to produce the record and a cast of younger alt-country superstars including Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Amanda Shires to sing background vocals.

Songs like “When I Get To Heaven” deliver loads of charm and folky swagger, while “Summer’s End” feels nostalgic and weepy with subtle strings that sound at home on one of Elliott Smith’s records. With swirling organs and no hint of panic or resignation, “Lonesome Friends of Science” puts a defiant spin on the world’s mounting woes so successfully that it almost makes our collective troubles feel more survivable: “The lonesome friends of science say / ‘The world will end most any day / Well, if it does, then that’s okay / ‘Cause I don’t live here anyway / I live down deep inside my head / Well, long ago I made my bed / I get my mail in Tennessee / My wife, my dog and my family.”

Prine is slated to perform songs from his new record and other old favorites at Red Rocks on Sunday, July 28th. He has performed in Colorado many times throughout his long and historic career, but this performance is shaping up to be something truly remarkable. Joining him on the world famous stage will be the Colorado Symphony. It will be interesting, to say the least, to hear how Prine’s sparse songs will be arranged and highlighted with the orchestral force of the Colorado Symphony. I’m With Her, a burgeoning indie roots band, will open the show.

It doesn’t matter whether you see John Prine as a hilarious country music icon or more of a beloved and authentic indie figure because either way we’re all just lucky he’s still making music and touring at his age. And, according to his bio, Prine might have at least another album left to write: “I kept saying when I was doing this album, it’s going to be my last one. But if things go really good with it, I can’t see why I wouldn’t do something else.”

John Prine performs with the Colorado Symphony and I’m With Her at Red Rocks Amphitheater on Sunday, July 28th.

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