As a mailman, John Prine is one heck of a songwriter. And, it is around a centralized humility born of his early career with the US postal service that the photos, lyrics, and chords congregate in Prine’s autobiographical songbook Beyond Words. On its face, this is a straightforward collection of words with pictures, but, really, it’s the life of John Prine; a once-upon-a-time letter carrier who, in a sense, still feels his achievements as one of the more cherished tunesmiths of the last four decades are somewhat accidental. Or, at least, coincidental.
Prine includes a yellowing newspaper excerpt of a review that brandished him “entertaining as a dog bite,” sharply contrasted with the generationally disconnected critic’s adoration for Mort Sahl. He shares ancient black and white shots of Paradise, Kentucky- home to his grandfather, who, with his African-American best friend Bubby, ran the mail boat on the river- that disclose an informing, rich ancestral history; a time and a place that shed light on Prine as much, if not more, than the pics onstage with Bonnie Raitt or Kris Kristopherson, (who, by the way, offers Prine as God’s favorite songwriter). There are captions of self-deprecating humor, winking at hair style choices and women dressed as oranges, suggesting illegal smiles and beer buzzes. There are ’51 Fords and neon marquees. There is even a two-page spread of the world’s largest shovel.
Above all, though, Beyond Words is a time capsule of not simply Prine and his songs, but of the transition of an American life, from black-and-white to color, from blue collar to bright light, delivered modestly, thoughtfully, and with a smile by the mailman from Chicago.