John Prine had been a name that had been kicking around the recesses of my limited understanding of American folk – I remember Roger Ebert mentioning writing the first published review of Prine’s work, but I had not heard much of the material. Then, one day on one of the XM stations came the sound of “Illegal Smile” – a cheeky drug anthem I suppose, but one of the more infectious folk songs I know. “You might see me today with an illegal smile/It don’t cost very much but it lasts a long while/”
Needless to say, this is funny stuff, very much evocative of the sort of territory Arlo Gurthrie covered in Alice’s Restaurant which I remember my father playing for me many eons ago. Of course, if Prine’s self titled debut in 1971 stopped with “Illegal Smile” or songs of its ilk, it would be a fun cheeky album, but not a profound expression of postwar regret, and frankly what is was like for regular folks at the time. The stories and sketches Prine paints here are akin to the sorts of things which Harry Chapin wrote I suppose, although his story songs were relatively banal by comparison. Comparing “Cats in the Cradle” to the story of Vietnam bound in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” is frankly the difference between grade school and a PhD program honestly. That Prine was 24 doing this is shocking, these are the songs of a much deeper soul – the sort of songs that folk fans lamented going away when Dylan turned towards rock full time.
Of course discussing lyrics and depth and critic things give an idea of the qualities, but it makes the album feel like homework. Really, you just need the songs.