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BACKTRACKING

A tenacious troubadour

Veteran folk-country songwriter John Prine has been going his own uncategorizable way for almost 40 years.

March 21, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Conor Oberst writes with such originality and depth that you have to forgive critics for dusting off Bob Dylan references to convey their enthusiasm. So it felt quite fitting earlier this month for Oberst to take time during his concert at the El Rey to sing a song by another songwriter who was described in Dylanesque terms when he came on the scene almost 40 years ago: John Prine.

Much of the El Rey audience probably assumed "Crazy as a Loon" was actually a new Oberst tune because it is blessed with the same warm, human touches that make his work so compelling. In fact, the song, co-written by Prine and Paul McLaughlin, speaks of a man who keeps blaming the rest of the world for his problems, not noticing how they follow him wherever he goes -- be it his attempt at being an actor in Hollywood or a country singer in Nashville.

A twentysomething fan standing near me at the El Rey certainly thought it was an Oberst song. When told it was written by Prine, she asked, "Who is he?"

"John Prine Live on Soundstage 1980" is a good way for her and anyone else to be introduced to the veteran folk-country songwriter. The hourlong DVD due Tuesday from Shout! Factory is taken from Prine's appearance on the distinguished PBS concert series. It doesn't include many of the essential early Prine songs, including "Sam Stone" and "Donald and Lydia," but it gives you enough of a sample to understand why Prine stands as one of the great songwriters of the modern pop era.

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John Prine

"John Prine Live on Soundstage 1980"

Shout! Factory / Oh Boy

The back story: In 1970, a few months after proclaiming Kris Kristofferson to be the best new young songwriter in America, I got a phone call from someone suggesting I may have been wrong. He said the best young songwriter in America might just be a former Chicago mailman named John Prine. I remember the call so well because it was Kristofferson on the line.

The writer of "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night" had seen Prine at a club in Chicago and helped him get a contract with Atlantic Records.

That debut album, "John Prine," was a classic the moment it hit the shelves, and he's made nearly a dozen great albums since, each filled with honest portraits of people caught in various stages of joy, acceptance and despair. Even so, he has never enjoyed the commercial breakthrough of a Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne, two other outstanding writers from the same period.

One reason is that Prine was pretty much ignored by radio in those pre-Internet days when radio exposure was vital for widespread commercial success. Pop stations called Prine's style too country, while country stations argued he was too pop. Both shuddered at his ragged vocals.

Rather than change to fit into a pop or country format, Prine simply followed his creative instincts. After stints at Atlantic and Asylum, Prine opted out of the major label sweepstakes and opened his own indie label, Oh Boy, in Nashville. It was a bold move -- and it seemed a bit crazy at the time.

Prine, in retrospect, was simply ahead of his time in realizing that an indie route may be the most advisable for a truly independent artist. Oberst also records for an indie label, Saddle Creek.

Prine has also resisted throughout his career sticking with what seemed to be working for him. "Whenever I got to the point one type of song became too easy, I wanted to try something else," he said shortly after starting Oh Boy with manager Al Bunetta in the early '80s. "I wanted to keep my music alive. That was always my biggest goal, and I feel I've done that. When it came to sales, I figured I'd just have to wait until it was my time. I'm a patient man."

Besides performing nearly a dozen of his own songs on the DVD, Prine takes a camera crew on a drive around his hometown of Maywood, Ill., including the intersection that was the site of a car crash described in the song "The Accident (Things Could Be Worse)."

The "Soundstage" show, produced by Ken Ehrlich, is the only archival concert of Prine available on DVD, and it's likely to leave you wanting more.

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Further listening/Prine: The best overview of Prine's work is Rhino's "The John Prine Anthology Great Days," a two-disc set that contains 41 songs. But the package, released in 1993, falls far short of fully documenting Prine's body of work. Maybe Rhino and Oh Boy could team up for a truly comprehensive set, one that could easily run four discs without resorting to filler. Of his Oh Boy recordings, I'd start with "The Missing Years," which won a Grammy in 1991 for contemporary folk album.

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Further listening/Bright Eyes: Hopefully, Oberst's tip of the hat to Prine won't just encourage some Oberst fans to check out Prine but make Prine fans curious about this 27-year-old from Omaha. The starting place in that search should be "I'm Wide Awake -- It's Morning," a marvelous 2005 album that battles cynicism and indifference. Meanwhile, keep an ear open for Oberst's latest album with his band, Bright Eyes. Titled "Cassadaga," it's due April 10.

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Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop music items.

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