Album #11: John Prine, ‘The Missing Years’

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

 

What the great songwriter John Prine meant to me — and to all of us

Two of my favorite musicians have died in the past month — first McCoy Tyner and now John Prine. I wrote about Tyner here. Now let me tell you a little bit about Prine, who’d been in poor health for years and who did not survive COVID-19.

I came to Prine fairly late. I knew who he was and had heard a few of his early classics. But it wasn’t until his 1991 comeback album, “The Missing Years,” started getting some airplay that I really tuned in. It’s still my favorite Prine album. His songwriting had matured and his thin, reedy voice had given way to something deeper and more expressive. (You can learn about all of his music at his website.)

Prine only recorded three more albums of original material after that, the most recent being “The Tree of Forgiveness” (2018) — as warm and funny and heartfelt as anything he’d recorded. But he also recorded two terrific albums of country classics on which he sang duets with female singers.

“In Spite of Ourselves” (1999), the first and better of the two, featured the old George Jones classic “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” Not only was it audacious for Prine to take on perhaps the greatest country singer ever, but his singing partner, Melba Montgomery (who also wrote the song), had recorded the original with Jones some 35 years earlier. It was a magical moment.

Another magical moment was in June 2018, when we finally got to see Prine in Boston. I’d been warned that his voice was shot from cancer treatments, but in fact he sounded fine that night. He told some great stories and seemed genuinely glad to be there. So were we.

Talk about this post on Facebook.