John Prine is a special kind of storyteller. He’s got a peculiar eye for detail, zeroing in on characters others wouldn’t bother with and settings others would fly over. On Friday, he’ll let us into their lives under the beautiful proscenium of the Taft Theatre. Prine grew up outside of Chicago, but he’s spent much of his career chronicling rural America. His acerbic wit and unpretentious outlook have earned him admirers (Bob Dylan has long been a vocal fan) and accolades far beyond the country and folk scene where he started.
If your very first recorded songs permanently enter the American folk lexicon, you are in rare company indeed. John Prine’s career has been long and fruitful, but his most iconic work will always be his self-titled 1971 Atlantic Records debut. It plays like a veritable greatest hits album (and indeed, seven of its thirteen tracks appear on his anthology Great Days), and will likely comprise a significant chunk of Friday’s show. “Angel from Montgomery” is probably the best-known of these, a portrait of lingering disappointment as “the years just flow by like a broken down dam.” “Sam Stone” was one of the first songs to document the effects of the Vietnam War on its returning soldiers, and “Paradise” addressed strip mining just a year after the first Earth Day. The songs from that record alone have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., and dozens of others.
This is not to diminish what came after. Prine followed the eponymous LP with a prolific streak over the next decade, tallying seven more albums on Atlantic and Asylum. The highlights are more scattered, but plentiful. “Christmas in Prison” bears the unforgettable image of “The searchlight in the big yard” which “swing[s] round with the guns/And spotlights on snowflakes like the dust in the sun.” “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” remembers a man who “Voted for Eisenhower/’Cause Lincoln won the war,” and “Dear Abby” takes an epistolary look at Americans’ petty complaints.
Prine’s distinctive nasal tenor has aged gracefully over the years, growing a bit ragged at the edges and losing some of its force, but still distinctly his. “Hello In There,” Prine’s gorgeous elegy to aging, gains all the more power when it comes from someone nearing 70. His productivity has fallen off a bit; with only one record of new material in the last two decades, 2005’s Fair & Square, he’s not exactly pushing new material. But there’s a giant in our midst, and he’s got timeless tales to tell.
Prine’s opening act (and, if past tours are any indication, duet partner) is songwriter Amanda Shires, no stranger to the Cincinnati stage--by my count, this is her third area appearance in less than two months. She’s touring off 2013’s beautiful Down Fell The Doves, recorded with the assistance of husband Jason Isbell and Todd Snider. “Wasted and Rolling” revels in a drunken escapade: “The world zig-zagged and leaned/Like stepping out of a Gravitron still moving.” The hilarious and lovely “A Song For Leonard Cohen” involves an evening with Canada’s greatest octogenarian, taking time to “Compare mythologies/And toast those friends that never believed.” Pity those friends. Neither Leonard nor Amanda has a damn thing to prove.