The blessing and curse of Mr. John Prine was an eponymous debut album that could never be topped.
Released in 1971, after everybody had already chosen up sides on the culture wars initiated in the Sixties, Prine’s classic proved him to be a politically bulletproof troubadour.
His service in the Army gave him the perspective to write about the poignant plight of vets returning home on “Sam Stone,” and the license to scathingly mock chickenhawks and knee-jerk “patriots” on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” The way he absorbed and cherished the rural Kentucky roots of his parents and grandparents (Prine himself was born in Maywood, Ill.) enabled him to skewer the strip-mining coal company on “Paradise” and to lay bare the specific desolation that comes with aging in the country on “Hello In There” and “Angel From Montgomery.”
Every one of those above-named handful of compositions could be placed proudly and prominently on the final resume of any songwriter, and they appear in a seven-song span in the middle of “John Prine” (just after “Illegal Smile” and “Spanish Pipedream” two other nearly-as-indelible tunes that some Prine fans might clamor for inclusion in the pantheon). That’s the bountiful blessing.
The curse is that a slew of subsequent, merely solid-to-great Prine releases suffer by comparison, despite the fact that some won Grammys and nearly all contain at least one or two numbers that can nestle beside those early classics without a jarring decrease in quality.
Of perhaps greater concern is that Prine has pretty much stopped writing new material, period. Coincidentally or not, he has delivered just one album of brand-new tunes, “Fair and Square” in 2005, since battling and beating cancer in 1998-99. His latest, released in May, is a live record titled “In Person and On Stage” that provides a nifty overview of his career, a pair of background pickers and singers helping with the meld of folk, bluegrass and country that is his métier.
On the brink of his 64th birthday (Oct. 10), Prine’s receding hairline gives him a landing strip from crown to forehead, and his voice is a little thicker and less supple than in decades past. But when he’s delivering lines like “he voted for Eisenhower because Lincoln won the war” (from “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”) or “It’s been years since the kids have grown, and left us alone” (from “Hello In There”) or simply inhabiting the protagonist of an aching lament like “Angel From Montgomery,” that voice, and the whirring intellect animating it, is the one you want to hear.
Here is Prine performing “Paradise” with his duo from a 2010 television show hosted by Marty Stuart.
Here is the incredible “Hello In There.”
And just for grins, here is the unfortunately still-relevant “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
John Prine, with opener Pieta Brown at the Orpheum Theater, Saturday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m.; tickets are $52-$61.50.