With "For Better or Worse," John Prine follows up his "In Spite of Ourselves" album with more male/female duets. And this one is a true A-list effort, as it finds Prine trading lines with the likes of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Alison Krauss. Once again, though, Iris DeMent steals the show with the angry and sarcastic "Who's Gonna Take the Garbage Out," the same way she did with the prior album's title cut. She's a worthy sparring partner, which makes it so much fun to hear DeMent play-fight with Prine.
Musgraves also has a lot of spunk, so her turn with "Mental Cruelty" is also good fun. Lambert's contribution on "Cold Cold Heart," however, is nearly invisible. Maybe it's because this song is not made for a lot of vocal fireworks. Even so, Lambert's understated performance is disappointing.
Lee Ann Womack, like DeMent and Kathy Mattea, get two shots at singing with Prine. One of her best turns is the hopeful "Storms Never Last," which smartly puts Womack's smooth voice over Prine's sandpaper croak. With "Look at Us," Morgane Stapleton gets to do with Prine what she usually does with husband Chris Stapleton. She's a truly great female vocalist who deserves a shot at making it as a solo performer. Amanda Shires, who's had plenty of opportunity outside her role with Jason Isbell, finds the artist talking back to Prine during the accusatory "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." Usually, this song doesn't allow the female in it the chance to defend herself. Holly Williams' assertiveness during "I'm Telling You" is a reminder that Williams is one strong singer. It's too bad the mainstream country audience doesn't know her better.
The song that stands out most on this collection is "Just Waitin'," a Prine-only performance. Prine is a smart and funny singing partner, but we'll always love him most for his plainspoken solo style. You can sense how much Prine's duet partners respect the man. They may get their barbs in with many of these lyrics, but at the end of the day, there's no doubt they love this guy. And so do we.