John Prine, In Person & On Stage

various artists, Broken Heart and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine

Inundated on all sides by fourth generation bands seeking to exist for six months or beyond, one occasionally feels the urge to get back to the source material, too. Over the course of a four-decade career, John Prine’s songs have helped form the roots of many excellent singer-songwriters in the awesome shadow of the Dylan wave of the ’60s. Prine was wise enough to stay true to his own muse, in turn crafting an impressive body of work featuring clever and imagery-filled lyrics wrapped around some killer hooks.

What is interesting about the new John Prine live album, In Person & On Stage isn’t just the onslaught of quality, classic tunes filled with witty asides, tall and lean tales, and words of existential wisdom (there’s 14 rueful and robust troubadour observations here). Nor the performances by stellar guest musicians (Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement, Sara Watkins, Josh Ritter, and Kane Welch Kaplin), who accompany the excellent Prine on vocals and guitar as well as a core band featuring Jason Wilber on lead guitar, mandolin, and background vocals, and Dave Jacques on upright and electric bass, and background vocals). Nor even the almost epic feeling that one is traveling through the life of another, in a weird bit of ravaged metempsychosis, but that Prine’s tunes still sound so relevant in 2010.

Culled from live performances of recent years, the spine of the work is is his more potent material, which has aged well (a shimmering duet with Harris on “Angel from Montgomery”), filled with tales of his youth traveling on vacation with his parents and three brothers (“The Bottomless Lake”), America’s old weird pre-Method Acting past (“The Late John Garfield Blues”), misguided patriotism (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”), those that make your heart skip (a poignant dedication to his wife proceeds “She is My Everything”), and the impact that devotion can have (“Glory of True Love”) within the realm of eternity (“Paradise”).

Indeed, the singer/storyteller’s relevance is further solidified on a striking new tribute CD, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon’s reading of “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” opens the album, and delivers a haunting performance straight from the basement of the Big Pink in a beautiful union of two different eras that found a home within the arc of Prine’s work. You can hear the past encapsulated within a large, open portrait of majestic America on this piece. Pure beaut.

And it just keeps rolling along after that as spectacular peak after peak appear to be filtered through Prine’s disciples in a winning combination of insight and vision and country honk (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band roll into “Wedding Day in Funeralville”), ambient folk (My Morning Jacket’s take on “All the Best” is subdued, post-motorcycle crash Dylan), tried-and-true acoustic heaven (Josh Ritter on “Mexican Home”; he is also featured as a guest on this tune on Prine’s aforementioned live album, as is Sara Watkins who also gets her turn for a solo Prine spotlight on a poignant “The Late John Garfield Blues”), a typically raucous rag ‘n romp (“Spanish Pipedream” from the typically raucous ‘n ragamuffin Avett Brothers), before out-and-out rawk ‘n’ rawl (shit-kickin’ Drive-By Truckers on “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin”), gives way to an inspired pairing featuring Deer Tick and Liz Isenberg (“Unwed Fathers”), and shit, yeah—killer cheese which flaunts and struts (Those Darlins’ fiery rockabilly-and-pout stance on a fun “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”).

Listen up, gentle and sharp folk. It’s 2010, and John Prine is still alive and kicking some substantial roots rock doors down. Let one and all follow, whether they are listeners, who are most fortunate to have the man’s live tunes piping out from their speakers, or the artists, who have been touched and influenced by the songwriting icon, on the tribute CD.