Remembering John Prine with the superfan author of a new book about the songwriter

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John Prine performs at the Americana Honors & Awards show

In this Sept. 11, 2019, file photo, John Prine performs at the Americana Honors & Awards show in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

John Prine, a songwriter who changed American music with stories of ordinary people told in plainspoken language set to acoustic guitar, died a year ago at age 73 in Nashville from complications related to the coronavirus.

The ballad “I Remember Everything,” released two months after his death, earned him two posthumous Grammys and debuted at #1 on Billboard Rock Digital Sales Chart. The song thoughtfully inventories what was meaningful in Prine’s life: the places he saw, the songs he sang, and the people who smiled on him.

"John Prine One Song at a Time" book cover
“John Prine One Song at a Time” navigates through Prine’s entire discography, beginning with his debut record and ending with his final single. (Courtesy of Bruce Rits Gilbert)

Prine released more than 18 albums during his 50-year career, and many of his songs have been covered by recording industry heavy-hitters. Among them: Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, George Strait, and Amos Lee.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spoke with John Prine superfan Bruce Rits Gilbert about his new book, “John Prine One Song at a Time.

He said his first encounter with Prine’s music was in the spring of 1973 when he was a college freshman swapping records with friends. Gilbert was smitten.

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The Beatles were no longer, and the music was getting a little more psychedelic. So I found myself not liking the direction of where rock and roll was headed. So when I put John Prine on, it was just amazing.

In this book that you’ve written, you begin with which album? Which song?

We begin with the very first album, which is called “John Prine.” The first song on that is a song called “Illegal Smile.”

“Illegal Smile” is a very catchy song that people have thought over the years was about marijuana or some other drug use, John said, no, no, nothing to do with that. It was just me. I have these moments of thinking that something is funny and no one else seems to get it. So it’s my illegal smile. He didn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, so if they wanted to think it was about marijuana, that was OK with him.

His lyrics are playful. We also hear them being just so purely, simply dead on about any circumstance.

He has a song called “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” which is a great song with almost a childlike melody. But it touches on domestic abuse, but … the way he sings the song, you hardly realize what he’s talking about.

Was the abuse his own experience?

I don’t think so. John had a way of stepping into other people’s shoes.

You say that there’s not a lot written about John. Why is that?

Well, there’s a lot written about John Prine in various places. There’s an unauthorized biography that was written. John has his own book called “Beyond Words,” which is really not a biography. Mostly it’s song lyrics and a few little anecdotes.

Bruce Rits Gilbert headshot
Bruce Rits Gilbert is the author of “John Prine One Song at a Time.” (Courtesy of Bruce Rits Gilbert)

After John died, I gathered my daughters and four of my nephews, a couple of my brothers-in-law, and we decided to form what we call the John Prine Album Club. Our homework was to listen to an album and think about it, starting with the first album working our way to the last album. And then every Thursday night we gathered on Zoom, and we talked about the album and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a book about his songs?’ A couple of months later, I started writing the book.

What did you think of John Prine’s final release? He won two Grammys for “I Remember Everything.” And when I heard it on the radio in Philadelphia on WXPN, I thought that was one of his older songs. It just fit in for me.

It was sort of a classic John Prine song. He literally recorded that in his living room. His producer, Dave Cobb, set up a couple of mics, one for his guitar and one for the vocals. It’s just amazing that he wrote a song called “I Remember Everything” as his last recording. It is just serendipitous.

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