These two releases capture the state of John Prine, an American songwriter right up there with Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. Prine’s a poet, and his observations on the human condition are wry, humorous, universal and profound. He’s the guy who wrote that “Angel From Montgomery” musical question, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening and have nothing to say?” which covered by Old Crow Medicine Show on the tribute and done as a Emmylou Harris duet on the live album.
The live disc covers material from Prine’s 1971 debut right on up to the present. Folksinger Iris DeMent duets on “Unwed Fathers”: “From a teenage lover to an unwed mother / Kept undercover like some bad dream / While unwed fathers they can’t be bothered / They run like water, through a mountain stream.” Prine also dusts off his rare “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” as well as dueting with Sara Watkins on “The Late John Garfield Blues.”
Despite Prine’s idiosyncratic delivery, highly personalized sense of humor and vocal twang factor, his songs translate well for other artists. On the tribute, Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band make “Wedding Day In Funeralville” their own. The same cannot be said of My Morning Jacket’s perfunctory reading of “All The Best” which robs the song of its bitter irony. Drive-By Truckers nail “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.” Justin Vernon of Bon Iver gives a positively haunting “Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow).” And Justin Townes Earle sounds like he wrote “Far From Me.”