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Oh boy, Prine comes out from under the covers

By Joel Bernstein, November 1999

John Prine's reputation for his 30-year career has been built more on his songwriting than on anything else. How strange then that his new album should have only one of his own songs and yet still is getting perhaps even more attention than its immediate predecessors.

Covers albums are running rampant right now, and it's only fitting that when Prine tackled the concept, he did it with a clever twist that no one else had thought of.

"In Spite Of Ourselves," on Prine's own Oh Boy label, is an album of classic country songs done as duets with female singers (except for one he does solo).

The women run the gamut from current mainstream stars like Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless to classic '60's country stars like Melba Montgomery and Connie Smith to current alt.-country heroines to Prine's wife Fiona. The title song is the only new Prine tune, and it shows he hasn't lost his touch for a humorous lyric.

"I had the idea for about 15 years," says the 53-year-old former mailman. "I just wanted to sing a bunch of cheatin' songs. It just stayed an idea until about three years ago. I made a list with (producer) Jim Rooney of the songs I wanted and the women I wanted."

"I was already familiar with the songs, but went out and sought duet versions. There were some songs that I didn't think I could pull off like 'Lovin' On Back Streets, Livin' On Main' and 'Slipping Around.' I was looking for all cheatin' songs, but then they started to X each other out. It became a joke after a while. So I figured I couldn't have cheatin' songs without people having met and fallen in love, then songs about breaking up, then having songs about the whole town gossiping about it."

Some songs, such as "(We're Not) The Jet Set," have considerable humor in them. "I wasn't looking for them to be funny, but it's something I'm naturally drawn to."

The funniest song on the record, though, is the one Prine did write (for the movie "Daddy And Them") and which also gives the album its title. The disc has a generous 16 songs, because "most of them are (so short) that we got 12 of them and didn't have anywhere near a full record."

While Prine had to work through a bunch of songs to find the right ones, he had no difficulty coming up with the female singers. He asked nine, and they all came aboard.

"I didn't expect them all to say yes. I figured some people would be into it, but their schedule wouldn't permit it. Some wouldn't be into it, and they'd say their schedule didn't permit it. Usually I had two or three songs in mind. for each person. Sometimes they didn't like the first song I sent."

"I'd worked with Emmylou (Harris), but we never recorded together in the studio. Lucinda (Williams), I know as a friend. Most of them, it's the first time singing together, except for my wife. She's not a professional singer, but she's Irish. They all sing over there. I've never met an Irish person who didn't sing."

Four of the album's duets are with Iris Dement, who has also been touring with Prine. "I met Iris through Jim Rooney, who produced her first album. He had brought me a tape of her. I wound up writing the liner notes for the album. She's great. She's one of my favorite songwriters."

"I knew Iris would be great for 'Jet Set' because there's a certain humor to it." Prine is obviously no George Jones, and Dement likewise is no Tammy Wynette.

How did it feel remaking one of their hits? "Just the fact that we're singing it makes it different." says Prine.

The timing of the project was in part dictated by a writing lull Prine went through while undergoing treatment for cancer, which appears to have been successful.

"The first six months was the time it was most likely to come back, but I've been all clear for over a year. This is a project I was going to do anyway"

Prine makes more money from his songs than from his records, but he hasn't had a big presence on the country charts, with one exception.

"George Strait cut one ("I Just Want to Dance With You," which reached number one) that paid for all my hospital bills. (Producer) Tony Brown asked me if I had anything at all. I just sent him the one song, and he took it right away. It was the last song they picked for the album, and then it was the first single. It's a very singable song. I wrote it with a very melodic songwriter, Roger Cook. (British-born Cook co-wrote numerous pop hits including "You've Got Your Troubles" and "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" before moving to Nashville in the '70's). Me and Roger play dominos and snooker together. I don't want to just make an appointment with someone (to write) unless I know them and like them."

Only once has Prine sought out a songwriter he didn't know in hopes of co-writing. "It was Bobby Braddock, who wrote 'Jet Set' and 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' (and countless other hits.) I called him up, and we wound up writing 'Unwed Fathers' (which appeared on Prine's album "Aimless Love")."

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