One night a million years ago some friends were going to a John Prine concert and asked me to go. I'd never heard of John Prine, so I declined. Big mistake.
A day or two later I heard Prine's first album and was taken to a world of lost loves, quirky humor and small tragedies, a world in which old broken bottles looked just like diamond rings, kids shot empty pop bottles and flies buzzed in the kitchen.
Like Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt, Prine was kissed by the Angel of Genius Songs when he was young.
The songs are as powerful now as they were then. But what was once fresh and wondrous has aged like good wine and assumed an air of cozy inevitability. You can't imagine not having these songs.
Prine walked onto the Britt stage in a dark suit Friday night after a pleasant opener by Austin, Texas, singer Carrie Rodriguez and opened his set with "Spanish Pipedream," the old tune that tells people to move to the country, build them a home, have a lot of children and feed them on peaches.
Prine, now 66, had surgery for cancer on his neck about 15 years ago, and that's added some gravel to an already thin but expressive voice. He's still singing most of the old songs. Audiences wouldn't let him quit if he wanted to.
Friday night at Britt he didn't act like he wanted to. Accompanied by longtime sidemen Jason Wilber on guitars, mandolin and harmonica and David Jacques on acoustic and electric bass, he drew from four decades of a career.
After the quirky "The Late John Garfield Blues" he asked the crowd, "How ya doing?" And jumped into "Six O'Clock News" with just him fingerpicking and telling a tale about how "the past was running faster." It was the first tragic song of the evening, and the audience was so keyed to his humor that the sad lines seemed a surprise.
Many of Prine's best songs are the musical equivalent of what's known in the theater as kitchen sink drama, little everyday vignettes that dig deep and threaten to break your heart. Bob Dylan said Prine's songs were "pure Proustian existentialism. Kristofferson once said Prine was so good, other songwriters would have to break his thumbs.
Songs such as "Far From Me," a song about a man who is losing his love, revealed in the details of a cafe closing late at night, a drive in an old car and the asking of a question you already know the answer to.
The singer talked a bit between songs — not too much, but to good effect. Introducing "Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows," he said he was driving to a gig in Chicago in the late '60s and figured the same nine people would be in the bar and would probably expect new material. So he wrote the tune but wondered if he'd be able to play it. Then he realized it was the same three chords he always used.
That's an exaggeration. Some of his songs have four chords. But the truth is, like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry, Prine is a master of the trick of being able to create a seemingly limitless number of great songs using only three chords (the I, IV and V chords).
Exibit A could be "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," a folksy bit of upbeat nostalgia that found Prine walking back and forth between Wilber and Jacques as if urging them on.
"Angel From Montgomery" has been covered by just about everybody, but it still carries a charge when sung by the man who wrote it. Prine delivered a soft, spare version.
The comical "Dear Abby" turned into a sing-along, and a solo segment of the show featured Prine playing acoustic guitar and singing. "Hello in There," a ballad about paying attention to old folks, was a stunner. Rodriguez joined Prine in the end, and the evening culminated in a rousing take on "Muhlenberg County," a paean to environmental loss.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.