50 Years Ago: John Prine Releases His Debut Album
In the realm of debut albums, John Prine's self-titled first record — released 50 years ago today, on Sept. 23, 1971 — is among the best of the best. Five decades later, John Prine is a classic in the folk icon's catalog, containing some of his most-loved songs and shining examples of his observant lyricism.
A Maywood, Ill., native, Prine first learned to play guitar as a young teenager, and he took classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music; however, music remained a hobby rather than a career for years, while Prine served in the Army and, then, worked as a mailman. Still, he wrote songs on his routes and in his spare time, and played club gigs; in fact, it was through those gigs that film critic Roger Ebert, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler — who was responsible for Prine's first record deal — discovered him.
Produced by Arif Mardin, John Prine was recorded mostly in Memphis, Tenn., at American Sound Studios ("Paradise," the sole exception, was recorded in New York City). The recording sessions, Prine admitted in the liner notes for Great Days: The John Prine Anthology liner notes, were a bit daunting.
"I was terrified," he said. "I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley's rhythm section."
These days, John Prine's tracklist — a total of 13 songs — reads like a greatest hits rundown. Side A alone contains, among others, "Sam Stone," the story of a drug-addicted veteran who dies of an overdose, and "Paradise," which examines the impact of strip-mining in Prine's parents' home area of Muhlenberg County, Ky. Side B, meanwhile, includes the politically pointed "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," the quirky love story "Donald and Lydia" and the future Bonnie Raitt cut "Angel From Montgomery."
John Prine also includes "Hello in There," which encourages kindness and respect toward older people, and reminds listeners "You know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder every day / Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, 'Hello in there, hello.'" Prine was in his 20s when he wrote and recorded the song, but said in the Great Days liner notes that he "always had an affinity for old people."
"I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old people's home where we’d have to go room to room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head," Prine explained. "It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody."
Although John Prine wasn't a chart hit, its song remain among those often covered by Prine's fans and fellow artists. It was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015, and helped Prine earn a Best New Artist nomination at the 1973 Grammy Awards.
Following John Prine, Prine recorded three additional albums for Atlantic, then three more for Asylum Records. Prine and his manager, Al Bunetta, founded Oh Boy Records in 1981; the label remained Prine's home until his death in 2020, and continues to release Prine's and other artists' records 40 years later.
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