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John Prine: Midwestern Mind Trips To The Nth Degree

John Prine possesses a sage goofiness, a wit untouched by world-weariness and a drawled manner of phrasing that cuts any possible pretense in his impeccably metered wordplay. His new live album proves he has retained all of these traits into senior citizenship. The same cannot be said of the tribute album saluting him. For instance, the Avett Brothers' rendition of Prine's "Spanish Pipedream" is rendered with an excessive jauntiness.

Tribute albums, always well-intentioned, tend to be pretty dreary affairs, and Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is no exception. Most of the musicians who admire Prine execute his subtle turns of emotion with something closer to flat-footed awe. One of the few bands that gets Prine right -- by not sounding like Prine -- is the Drive-By Truckers, with a version of "Daddy's Little Pumpkin." That song is about as minor as Prine material gets -- I want to hear a Drive-By Truckers version of "If You Don't Want My Love," shockingly not performed on either of these albums.

As for Prine's live album, he cherry-picks favorite performances of his from the past few years. Being the laid-back, generous but high-standard type of fellow he is, Prine knows how to pick the right people to sing his material, as is proven on his duet with Iris DeMent on the wonderful "In Spite of Ourselves."

Because he started out strumming an acoustic guitar, and because one of his first well-known songs was the Vietnam War-era song "Sam Stone," Prine gets pegged as a folk singer-songwriter. In fact, he has always had at least as much country music in his rhythm and his rhymes. That's another thing that his kind admirers on the tribute album don't seem to get: You can convey sincerity through something besides emoting. It's called detachment -- a detachment that roots a soaring, ringing song such as "The Glory of True Love" in an earthiness that really enables it to lift off.

In 1998, Prine lost some throat tissue to cancer, and some of the range in his already ragged tone to radiation treatments. Still, he sounds pretty great on almost every cut on this live album, and he could teach the whippersnappers with juicier vocal cords on his tribute album a few things about how to sell a song. Not for nothing did Bob Dylan declare just last year that Prine's songs are "Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree." From a master of mind games to a master of mind trips, that's a pretty good tribute all by itself.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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