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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Mailman-Turned-Singer Knows How to Deliver

Laid-back musician John Prine makes the rounds with clever songs good for both tears and smiles.

February 29, 1996|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oh jeez, the fabulously funny folk singer John Prine is heading this way. He will arrive for the first time in a few years for a Tuesday night concert at the Ventura Theatre.

With 11 albums to his credit and a twangy, aw-shucks demeanor, Prine is kind of like the banjo or a Twinkie--everyone seems to like him. With spike-haired folkie Heather Eatman opening the 8 p.m. show, they comprise the entire stable of artists of Oh Boy Records.

Prine, now the big 5-0, started playing guitar when he was a kid in Chicago. He wrote his first songs when he was a teenager to impress girls. Like many young men in the '60s, Prine felt a draft but managed not to end up in Southeast Asia. Instead, Uncle Sam sent him to Germany.

"Oh jeez, I didn't even open the test book, so they decided I was just right for the motor pool," he said. "When I was in Germany, some guys volunteered for Vietnam to get an early out, and some of them got out earlier than they expected."

When he got out of the Army, he played clubs and soon was making more money than he had as a mailman plodding through the snow during the Chicago winter. Those were the days before postal workers made any kind of living.

"I made $2.18 an hour at the post office and they didn't pay overtime, and they worked us 12 hours a day. When I left, the postmaster told me not to take my retirement because I'd be back. I told him, 'You don't get it. Even if this singin' thing doesn't work, I ain't ever coming back.' Most people would've kept both jobs and doubled their money, but I just quit and slept all week."

Prine's buddy, singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, got him hooked up with Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka, and the ex-mailman ended up in New York, where he landed a record deal within 24 hours. Prine has been making critically acclaimed albums since his 1971 debut. After his last big-label album in 1980, Prine started his own label. Being his own boss works for Prine.

"Oh jeez, you get to do what you want, and I get to sleep late, which is important when you've been doing this as long as I have," he said. "And I don't have to be around people anymore I wouldn't want to be in an elevator with. A lot of them are probably good people if they were just in another line of work besides the music business."

And business seems to be quite good. His 1991 release "The Missing Years" not only won a Grammy, but sold more than 200,000 copies, which is great for an independent release. Last year's "Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings" is on a similar sales pace. Despite the fact that Prine's career is, more or less, slow but steady, or a lot like he talks, there yet may be some career opportunities opening up at Oh Boy.

"Yeah, we might add a couple of other artists," he said. "The distributors would like to have some more stuff. What does it take me, 3 1/2 years between records? We had a rock 'n' roll band, but they broke up before they made their second record. Rock 'n' roll bands are always doing that stuff. Oh jeez, maybe next time we'll release a single before that happens again."

*

These days, with two babies at home, Prine makes short tours to places packed with adoring fans who know the words to all his songs.

"Oh jeez, I still haven't figured out going on tour," he said. "At first it's fun, but then you want to be somewhere else. The first six or seven years I toured, I loved it because I'd never been to any of them places. I'd go to a small college town somewhere in Iowa and I'd be buying postcards. Now some of those places I'm tired of, I guess, but I'm ready for this tour. I've been home for five months."

Despite a distinct lack of airplay, Prine's popularity seems at an all-time high. Must be all those clever songs that alternately stimulate the smile gland or the snivel gland in strange and unusual ways.

"Aw jeez, they're sad, funny, I dunno. But stuff only gets so sad, then it gets funny. Hopefully, the humor always kicks in," he said. "A lot of this, I have no control over. I'll write a song, then sit back and think, 'Oh jeez, do I want to be responsible for this?' I really don't like to write when I don't feel like there's something to write about."

Want to be the next John Prine? Here is some advice from the master:

"Oh jeez, I would tell them to write as much as they could if they're going to pursue it professionally, especially if they know they're good," he said. "Just build up your catalog of songs. I think more and more people are doing that today. Some of them even have managers. Man, I didn't even have a tape recorder when I started."

The show is expensive--$25--but probably worth it. Start saving now. If you miss Prine, oh jeez . . .

DETAILS

* WHAT: John Prine, Heather Eatman.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday.

* HOW MUCH: $25.

* CALL: 648-1888.

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