As with Tom Waits, Van Morrison and a few of the others on this list, I didn’t tune in to John Prine until his career was well under way. In 1991, songs from his remarkable album “The Missing Years” began popping up on the radio, and I liked them enough to buy the CD. It is a wonderful piece of work, warm, funny and wistful, showing off Prine at his best.
The title was in part a play on Prine’s five-year absence from recording — but it also echoes the last song on the album, “Jesus The Missing Years,” a hilarious meditation on what Jesus may have been up to during all those years between childhood and his public ministry. But that song is a trifle — the rest of the album consists of more substantial fare, alternating between solo acoustic songs and full-band workouts. The highlights are “All the Best,” “The Sins of Memphisto,” “Take a Look at My Heart,” “Everything Is Cool” … actually, everything on the album is pretty great.
“The Missing Years” was Prine’s first album since the death of his longtime friend and producer Steve Goodman. Howie Epstein, the bassist in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, lent Prine a crisper, more pop-oriented sound without sacrificing any of Prine’s rootsiness. Epstein also brought in a raft of guest singers, including Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt. Unfortunately, Epstein’s hack tendencies came to the fore on Prine’s 1995 follow-up, “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” which has some fine songs but is marred by a generic rock sound. (It does have the greatest album cover of all time.) Prine recorded only sporadically after that.
Prine was something of a legend from the beginning of his career in the 1970s, when he was hailed as a “new Dylan” — like so many others, including Springsteen. I had long been smitten with Bonnie Raitt’s version of his song “Angel from Montgomery.” “The Missing Years” sent me back into Prine’s catalog. But though he was a strong songwriter right from the start, I’d argue that “The Missing Years” is his best album. His singing, thin and unattractively smug when he was in his 20s, had mellowed into something deeper and more empathetic. And though the young Prine was justly celebrated for wise-beyond-his-years songs like “Hello in There,” he was also capable of cranking out a nasty piece of work like “Donald and Lydia,” which cruelly mocks two young losers for no discernible reason. By contrast, “The Missing Years” is the work of someone who sounds like you’d enjoy having a few beers with to discuss the meaning of life.
In poor health for many years, Prine died of COVID-19 back in April. We were fortunate enough to see him perform in Boston in 2018; he was in surprisingly fine voice and in even finer spirits. If you get a chance, check out his two albums of duets with female singers on classic country songs, “In Spite of Ourselves” (1999) and “For Better, or For Worse” (2016). Also worth a listen is his final album, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (2018), his last collection of original songs.