Category: John Prine

Covered In Folk: John Prine
(21 covers incl. Laura Cantrell, Amos Lee, Josh Ritter & Jeffrey Foucault!)

March 23rd, 2010 — 08:00 pm

Like so many of our Covered in Folk feature subjects, I discovered country-folk singer-songwriter John Prine via coverage – through both his own “original” version of Roly Salley composition Killing the Blues, which Shawn Colvin attributed to Prine himself on her mid-nineties cover album Cover Girl, and Bonnie Raitt’s ubiquitous version of Angel From Montgomery, a sentimental bluesfolk number familiar to anyone who has ever flipped the radio dial to a Contemporary station in the last few decades.

It wasn’t until much later, during a week in attendance at my father’s house while he recovered from back surgery, that I discovered several of Prine’s early albums on my progenitor’s shelves, nestled there among Wainwright, Hartford, and other artists I had rejected in my youth as unfamiliar names with less than melodic voices, and a bit more country than I was ready to take on.

To be fair, my father’s collection was always a bit lighter on the Chicago folk revivalist scene from whence Prine arose, and heavier on the more localized NYC Fast Folk movement which I have touted so often on these pages. But I consider it a stroke of luck that the John Prine canon falls in that gap of my audiophilic development that I have only recently come to fill. In the intervening years, my tastes have matured beyond the direct sentiment and clear vocalists of my youth: these days, I look for nuance, deep social consciousness, and a bit of wry grit in my music. And for a true fan of such elements, John Prine is a diamond, plain and simple.

Though the bulk of John Prine’s greatest and most well-known songs were recorded in his late twenties, from the very first note of his self-titled ’71 debut, both man and music come across as ageless and wise. To listen to those weary recordings is to discover the truly complex combination of gentle wistfulness, perceptive wisdom, and humor which more often graces the best artists’ work only in their last years.

That it comes, in the original, from that broken, ancient voice – a tonality that falls somewhere between Dylan’s nasality and Guy Clark’s dust-croaked twang, only deepened since Prine’s 1998 brush with cancer, which occasioned a removal of no small amount of neck tissue – only underscores that this is a mature listener’s music, though certainly, as the below coverage amply reveals, Prine’s simple, plaintive melodies and direct portrayals of blue-collar drunkards, drifters, addicts, and wise-but-downtrodden everymen are accessible enough to appeal to younger listeners – and cover artists – as well.

It’s certainly possible to go grand and bombastic with a few of Prine’s more humorous tunes – for evidence, we need only turn to the full-blown country-western twang of David Alan Coe’s 1974 hit You Never Even Called Me By My Name, a parody of popular country music co-written by Prine and frequent collaborator Steve Goodman. I’ve skipped a few others “out there” from bona-fide folkies such as Joan Baez, Todd Snider, and John Denver that seemed a bit too pretty for my tastes. And it is true that a few of today’s set – most notably takes from Eddi Reader, Nanci Griffith, and a young Kasey Chambers & family performing as The Dead Ringer Band – filter these songs through the well-produced countrypop sentiment that we have come to expect from these performers, though to say so is by no means an invitation to pass over what turn out to be strong interpretations of well-chosen songs.

But most of today’s covers are gentle and solo acoustic, sung with a heavy heart and a smile that’s wistful and wry, chagrined and sincere all at once – both because we do folk here, and because, more often than not, Prine’s lyrics and melodies demand it that way. Live covers from Amos Lee, Josh Ritter, Jeffrey Foucault, Laura Cantrell, Hayes Carll and others strip these songs to the bone, bringing the same sparse touch to these gems that Prine himself did on his exquisite 2000 album Souvenirs, in which he revisited his own early songbook with the wisdom of years. As such, like the tributes below, Souvenirs – and 2005 follow-up Fair & Square, a “laid-back” acoustic album which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album – come highly recommended for folk fans.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Like what you hear? As always, Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to promote artists; if you’ve found love in our little hobby, please consider following links above to purchase and pursue your own rich collection.

If, afterwards, you’d like to give a little back, please consider that – much like public radio – we depend on your generosity to help pay the bandwidth bills. As our gift to supporters, all who donate to Cover Lay Down will receive our Summer ’09 Bootleg mix, featuring Stonehoney’s cover of John Prine’s Paradise and 16 more exclusive tracks recorded live at various Northeast folk festivals and available nowhere else. Make your gift today!

1,517 comments » | Amos Lee, Covered in Folk, Jeffrey Foucault, John Prine, Josh Ritter

Gender Gaps: Laura Cantrell covers New Order, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, John Prine et. al.

August 6th, 2008 — 12:33 pm

Photo by Ted Barron, stellar photographer and bloghost

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, countryfolk artist and long-time WFMU radio host Laura Cantrell‘s guest post over at Boogie Woogie Flu decrying the dearth of female artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame, is a masterstroke on many levels: a good read, an earnest critique of gender bias in country world, and a great dissolution of the usual dichotomy between blogger and performer which can only lend further blogcred to the big and well-deserved buzz that Cantrell enjoyed for her most recent release, the digital-only covers EP Trains and Boats and Planes, a fine, well crafted country/folk/pop album with solid nods to a wide variety of songwriting greats, and undertones of Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, and even a touch of Kathleen Edwards in performance.

In the folkworld, the issue of gender difference is actually much more subtle, and it drifts as generations go on. For example, musician and folk chronicler Scott Alarik, in his seminal exploration of the modern folkworld Deep Community, makes a good case for an anti-male bias in the crossover potential of that particular section of the singer-songwriter folkworld which has long been his focal point; as evidence, he notes how metorically the female Fast Folk artists of the eighties rose to pop prominence, while their male contemporaries, such as John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, Greg Brown, and Cliff Eberhardt, seem to have hit a wooden ceiling that keeps them on coffeehouse and festival stages at the peak of their career.

But it also true that, in order to rise to such prominence, artists from Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega to, more recently, pop-folker Kathleen Edwards and on-the-cusp country star Lori McKenna had to crank up the pop production value — a move that some have decried as leaving the folkworld behind for the trappings of top 40 radio. Alarik’s premise is muddied by the easy target: crossover appeal is no confirmation of core values within a genre.

And what Scott sees in his generation may not be true of all iterations of folk, either. If you ask the average passerby to name ten folk artists, they’ll tend to start with Dylan and Guthrie, but from there, the common fan’s history of sixties folk is full of names of both genders, from Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell. As I mentioned in the comments to Laura’s entry, the rich crop of name-brand women performing on the countryfolk line over the last few decades — Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, even Allison Krauss — gives hope to a new generation even as it decries the easy, central categorization that best provides potential entry to a Hall of Fame. The newest folk movements seem heavy with female singer-songwriters, but it remains to be seen what fame and fortune will bring to their careers. And, of course, folk has no equivalent hall of fame — which means no gatekeepers, and thus a much less easily identifiable pattern of bias.

Laura’s insider report is highly credible as a condemnation of the Country world, though — and it is only lent credence by her early career as a guide to those same hallowed halls where the portraits of Country music’s Hall of Fame line the walls. But it also stands as a more general statement about bias in singer-songwriter forms, inviting us to look more deeply into our own responsibility, as fans and flamekeepers, for the way we frame the relationships between our musical icons, and ourselves. Laura deserves props for reminding us that, as long as the past continues to matter to how we define the present, which portraits hang in the halls of our memory palaces and institutions matters greatly. Here’s the songs of a few artists both living and long-gone which Laura herself has paid tribute to over a decent decade or more of increasingly confident, dynamic, and adept countryfolk.

Laura Cantrell’s new album Trains and Boats and Planes, which includes covers of artists from Burt Bacharach to John Hartford, is available at the usual digital download sources. Head to Laura’s homepage, for some sweet downloads; link from there to the EP, and Laura’s excellent past recordings as well.

You can hear Laura’s radio show The Radio Thrift Shop most Wednesday mornings live on NYC institution WFMU from 6-9; archived streams are available at the link above. And, if you’re in or around the Big Apple –a surprisingly significant hotbed for countryfolk these days — Laura will also be presenting a special “Let Us Now Praise Famous Women” revue at The Spiegeltent in NYC on Tuesday, August 19, featuring guest artists Jenny Scheinman, Megan Hickey (Last Town Chorus), Fiona McBain (Ollabelle), Theresa Andersson and a special performance by Rodney Crowell. Let me know, if you go.

Today’s bonus coversongs have major street cred:

  • Billy Bragg and Wilco arranged When The Roses Bloom Again for their first Mermaid Avenue album, thinking it was a Guthrie original

  • Iron and Wine’s treatment of New Order’s Love Vigilantes is thick and full of atmosphere, but we’d expect nothing less
  • (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding songwriter Nick Lowe covers Elvis Costello’s Indoor Fireworks

    Thanks to Boogie Woogie Flu for soliciting Laura’s thought-provoking piece, and Setting the Woods on Fire for calling it to my attention. Head on over to the former for choice cuts from some classic undersung female country artists, and the latter for a few great originals from Cantrell herself.

  • 752 comments » | Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Iron and Wine, John Prine, Laura Cantrell, Lucinda Williams, Nick Lowe

    Why Do I Love Hank? Country coverfolk with today’s guest host: Paul

    July 25th, 2008 — 10:41 am

    My name is Paul and I usually blog over at Setting The Woods On Fire. Boyhowdy has been kind enough to let me say a few words here while he enjoys a vacation. As you might have guessed from the title of my blog, I’m a big fan of Hank Williams. I also love cover songs.

    Cover songs are fun because they help you separate the song from the performance. Do I love Hank because of the songs he wrote and poularized? Or do I love Hank because of the way he performed them? I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but listening to covers of Hank is a good way to understand what makes Hank’s records so special.

    Except for the Dylan tune, the tracks featured here are new to me. Boyhowdy thought it might be interesting to see how a Hank fan would respond to folky covers of Hank’s work. Some I liked a lot. Some not so much.

    I’ll start with Cold Cold Heart by Norah Jones. This one should generate lots of interest, as it’s one of Hank’s best compositions performed by popular singer. While Norah undoubtedly has a great voice, I’m not sold. I hear it more as a musical exercise than as an emotional plea from a frustrated lover. Lesson: I love Hank because he really sells a song.

    Norah Jones, Cold Cold Heart (H. Williams)
    (from Come Away With Me)

    Since I wasn’t so nice with the first one, let’s move on to my favorite song in this batch of Hank covers, a brilliant medley of Wedding Bells and Let’s Turn Back The Years performed by John Prine and Lucinda Williams. I love everything about this recording. Hank did not write Wedding Bells but it sounds just like something he could have written, which is shown by how seemlessly this “medley” fits together. John and Lucinda do a nice job selling the song without over-singing. Not surprising, considering their talents. (Of course, it might just be the peddle steel guitar that so warms my country-loving heart on this piece.)

    John Prine & Lucinda Williams, Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back The Years (C. Boone/H. Williams)

    (from In Spite of Ourselves)

    Speaking of over-singing, here’s a rendition of Long Gone Lonesome Blues that’s just a bit too overdone for my taste. Yodeling is OK (in small doses). Quavery yodeling is pushing it.

    Red Molly, Long Gone Lonesome Blues (H. Williams)
    (from Never Been To Vegas)

    Over-singing isn’t always bad, though. I’m not exactly sure why, but Mark Erelli’s spirited version of The Devil’s Train works well despite the singer’s affected “twang”:

    Mark Erelli, The Devil’s Train (H. Williams)
    (from The Memorial Hall Recordings)

    Another one from Boyhowdy’s batch that I really liked was I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Greg Brown. It’s kind of a goofy song (“I was living high until the fatal day a lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched”), and it’s a Hank Williams’ signature tune, so it’s not an easy assignment for a cover artist. But Brown pulls it off with aplomb by playing it straight. Just like Hank, I believe Brown’s exaggerated tale of woe.

    Greg Brown, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (F. Rose/H. Williams)
    (from Friend of Mine)

    Only one of Boyhowdy’s batch of folky Hank covers really bothered me, and this is it. The descending harmony party is cloying. And the re-written lyric about the “gay” dog just does not belong in a Hank Williams song (not that there’s anything wrong with gay dogs). Score one point for Hank’s performance trumping his songs.

    Devon Sproule & Paul Curreri, Why Don’t You Love Me? (H. Williams)
    (from Valentines Day Duets #3, 2006)

    Let’s close this post with a Hank song performed by one of the few artists that I would place on an equally high pedestal, Bob Dylan.

    Bob Dylan, (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle (H. Williams/J. Davis)
    (outtake from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)

    I hope you enjoy these tunes. If I’m wrong about my criticism of any of the few I didn’t like, please let me know. It’s just one Hank fan’s opinion.

    Oh yeah, my conclusion from listening to these covers is that I like Hank’s songs, but I love the way he sings them.

    Prolific blogger and tastemaster Paul pays regular tribute to country, rock, bluegrass, and jazz over at Setting The Woods On Fire. He is also a founding member of collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine.

    1,013 comments » | Bob Dylan, Devon Sproule, Greg Brown, Guest Posts, Hank Williams, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Mark Erelli, Norah Jones, Paul Curreri, Red Molly