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CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS : Calendar's critics share their love of the arts: the gift each would give a friend today : POP

December 25, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

This may come as a surprise, but there was once a singer-songwriter I wrote about more than Bruce Springsteen. His name is John Prine, and I still think he may be the most compelling American songwriter since Bob Dylan.

There's humor and wistful irony in several of his songs, but the heart of his music deals with tender, consoling looks at people's darkest heartaches and needs. A trio of his albums--1971's "John Prine," 1980's "Storm Windows" and 1985's "Aimless Love"--is the musical gift I'd most like to share with a friend this day.

Contrary to popular belief, critics don't thrive on ridicule and attack. The most prized moments involve hearing a great new artist and then sharing that enthusiasm with readers.

I still remember the night in 1971 when I sat down in my office at home late one night with a stack of new LPs. I was looking for something interesting to write about, and I gave up on most of the albums after a single selection. I had only been at The Times a few months and was amazed at how many new artists sounded alike. The record industry is subject to the same follow-the-trend tendencies of every other business.

Then, there was this strange voice--as twangy and resolutely independent as Dylan's--singing songs that seemed shaped by imagination and experience, not simply lifted from the latest record-industry formulas. The melodies were simple--mostly slight variations of standard folk/country strains, but the words set scenes and reflected nuances in ways that suggested a poet's feel for image and rhyme and a novelist's feel for character and detail.

Prine's songs dealt with traditional topics of desire and disappointment, but he brought a rare combination of innocence and social realism to the stories--choosing to focus on people often ignored by pop songwriters: the neglected old folks in "Hello in There" (a song later popularized by Bette Midler) or the Vietnam veteran in "Sam Stone" who came home with emotional scars and a drug habit that caused him eventually to trade in the "house that he bought on the G.I. Bill / for a flag-draped casket on a local heroes' hill."

I was so enthused by this music that I wrote a rave review for the cover of Sunday Calendar. Prine's album also drew lots of other critical acclaim, but it was ignored by radio. Pop/rock programmers rejected the album as too country, while country deejays felt it was too pop or rock. The result is the album only made it to No. 154 on the Billboard sales chart.

Prine kept making albums and writing absorbing new songs, introducing several meaningful new characters, including "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard," a young drug casualty who undergoes numerous psychological changes (and accompanying name changes) in hopes of finding inner peace or meaning in her life.

But his music also began to deal increasingly with the struggle and uncertainty that follows the loss of innocence--the melancholy realization that life isn't the idyllic journey that children are often taught.

In compositions like 1975's "Saddle in the Rain," 1980's "Storm Windows" and 1981's "Aimless Love," Prine explored with unflinching vision and insight many of the themes of isolation and romantic complexities that Springsteen examined in his gripping 1982 "Nebraska" and this year's "Tunnel of Love" albums.

Radio, however, still hasn't warmed to Prine and--after deals with two major labels, Atlantic and Asylum--he now releases his work on his own, tiny Oh Boy Records in Nashville. There has, however, been much to admire in each of Prine's albums and I put several of them on my year-end Top 10 lists.

I pulled several of the Prine albums from the shelf the other night and they still sound as warm and endearing as they did the first time I put them on the turntable--even more evocative perhaps, because the songs remind you of people and places in your life as surely as photos in a family scrapbook.

When aspiring musicians or songwriters ask for advice about getting started in the music business, I tell them they have to make a choice: Do you want primarily to sell records or to follow your own musical instincts?

The answer if they are most interested in selling records is to listen to what's on the radio and copy it. The advice if they want to be true to their instincts is to listen to what's in their heart and then hope what they have to say finds an audience. Prine is someone who has always listened to his heart.

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