Folk-country songwriting legend, John Prine, who was once a postman in his native Maywood, Ill., is currently on tour in support of his latest Grammy-nominated release, In Spite Of Ourselves – a collection of duets with a few of his favorite female singers.
“It was a pet project of mine,” says Prine from his home in Nashville, “and I’m glad that it’s doing as well as it is.”
With this being his first effort in five years, it might strike some as odd that this album is comprised mostly of covers, coming as it does from a songwriter known for stripping bare the essence of life with uncanny wit and perception. Although the record has been on the country charts for 21 weeks now, he braced himself for a completely different reaction before its release.
“I didn’t expect it [to do well],” he says. “I didn’t expect the record to do poorly either. But I expected a big backlash because the only reason that I’m out there singing in the first place is because I write my own songs. So I didn’t expect it to be received all that great because I’m singing all these covers.”
In fact, the title track, In Spite Of Ourselves, is the only song penned by Prine on this record. But it was a perfect vehicle for him to realize his dream of doing a project like this – one that finds him teaming up with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Lucinda Williams, and Dement, among others. Each of the songs are a paean to love realized or unrequited, cheatin’ or mate swappin’, and everything in between , and Prine’s reedy, smoke-filled voice is augmented perfectly by each of the girls he sings with.
“I’d been wantin’ to do it for a long time,” says Prine. “I got to thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got my own record company. If I can’t do a record like this on my own record company, then where could I do it?’ (Laughs.)”
The recording process began three years ago when Prine and Dement went into the studio to record the lead track, Jet Set – the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic about backwater love penned by Bobby Braddock. Soon after, the recording session were cut short by Prine being diagnosed with, of all things, cancer of the neck.
“That was like – time out,” he says with a faraway sound in his voice, “I just had to stop everything and see what I could do about this interruption. I discovered it when I was shaving. It was just a small lump that I could feel, but you couldn’t see it. I asked several doctors over a period of about six months if it was anything that I should be alarmed about, and they said no. It would start to go away, and then come back. So, I went to this one doctor and said that I wanted to go ahead and have it cut out. It was buggin’ me. They had to perform a biopsy before they could do anything to it, and it was then they found out that it was cancer. It took me having to ask to have this thing cut out before anyone really looked at it. If I hadn’t asked them to, I don’t know how else I would’ve found out.”
Fortunately, all is well now. Although radiation treatment was needed to fully kill the cells, his voice remained unaffected. “They wanted to use this device to protect my vocal chords,” says Prine. “And I said, ‘You guys have never heard me sing, have you?’ (Laughs). As long as I can talk, I can sing.”