John Prine Runs the Gamut in The Tree of Forgiveness

Diving Into His First Solo Album in 13 Years

Editor’s note: Produced by Grammy winner Dave Cobb, The Tree of Forgiveness was recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A with Prine’s longtime band and special guests Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. On April 18, he celebrated its April 13 release with a private party at Nashville’s Melrose Billiard Parlor.

Its title notwithstanding, John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness is less a living organic whole than a yard sale of the mind — a profusion of trinkets and treasures all mixed together and awaiting for each prowling musical shopper to decide which is which.

Here the listener can forget the orderly narratives of such Prine gems as “Paradise” and “Unwed Fathers” and surrender instead to his gruff storyteller voice and penchant for stream-of-consciousness riffs that can soar from silly to sublime within seconds.

John Prine in 1975

Be warned, however, that too close an inspection of the lyrics could get you consigned to that pack of “syphilitic, parasitic” critics Prine says he might forgive for their effronteries once he ascends to the afterlife.

Of the album’s 10 songs, Prine wrote only two unaided — “The Lonesome Friends of Science” and “When I Get to Heaven.” His co-wordsmiths on the others are Pat McLaughlin, Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson, Keith Sykes, Roger Cook and Phil Spector.

His opening song, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” conjures up images of a vagabond who’s seen better times but is keeping his spirits up with his “six string” and “sweet potato wine.” Even so, he’s not too proud to ask for “a can of pork and beans,” if you’ve got one to spare (that could be him at the door now.).

Bonnie Raitt and John Prine

Denise Sofranko/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“I Have Met My Love Today” is a sweet and simple declaration of discovery, full of predictable rhymes and sentiments that, nonetheless, seem to work. The song serves as a companion piece to “Boundless Love,” which surfaces later in the album and rejoices in a more mature and all-encompassing companionship. “Boundless Love” shines with this irresistible simile, “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/It bounces around ‘til my soul comes clean.”

It’s conceivable that someone might root out an overarching meaning in “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” but, if so, that person should be beaten about the head and shoulders for taking all the fun out of this ditzy ditty.
Just the conceit of “Egg & Daughter Nite” is hilarious. It sounds like the far-fetched name of one of those small-town events designed to bring a colossally bored community together for something uplifting.

Reba McEntire and John Prine

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You just know that somewhere in this epic Prine will bring in “Alaska” to rhyme with “Nebraska.” And he does. But the most vivid element is his description of a guy hanging around the roller rink and leering at the farmers’ daughters: “You’re prob’ly standing there with your slicked-back Brylcreem hair, your Luckies and your daddy’s fine-tooth comb.” Who even remembers the oleaginous Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya”), these days, or Lucky Strike cigarettes (“L/S/M/F/T: Lucky Strikes Mean Fine Tobacco”)? And what, pray tell, does, “When you’ve got hell to pay/Put your shoes on layaway” mean? No, don’t tell us.

The gorgeous “Summer’s End” floats past us on the winds of a finger-picked acoustic guitar and wistful choral entreaties to “Come on home.” It’s like a fading watercolor that’s made all the more precious by its impermanence. Prine’s voice lingers lovingly on the signs of summer almost gone — swimsuits drying on the line, car windows still wide open even as he imagines the snows that will come.

Holly Laessig, Roger Waters, Jim James and John Prine

“Caravan of Fools” rolls toward us in an ominous minor key, and what seems a Gypsy caravan at first segues in what sounds like a commentary on the shallowness of celebrity. Like Plato’s ship of fools allegory, Prine’s caravan of modern-day fools has motion without direction.

Prine packs a lot into “Lonesome Friends of Science.” That science has become a lonesome pursuit these know-nothing days is pretty obvious. But then there are those who live inside their heads and seem oblivious to science’s warnings. Science itself has let us down, Prine suggests. Pluto’s been demoted from a once “mighty planet” to “just an ordinary star/Hanging out in Hollywood at some ol’ funky sushi bar.” The singer delves into mythology and comes up with the statue of Vulcan in Birmingham, Ala., whose “pride hangs down below his knees.” After Venus leaves Vulcan for Mars, in Prine’s retelling, he sends them a wedding gift of a “three-legged stool and a wheelchair lift.”

And don’t get him started on “[t]hose bastards in their white lab coats/who experiment with mountain goats.”

Margo Price and John Prine

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The domestic discord implicit in “No Ordinary Blue” appears to have reached a turning point here: “Last night for a split sec I was a train wreck/I was a complicated guy/I hope we don’t find this is the last time/That we ever say goodbye.” Whatever the strain involved, Prine implies, it’s like nothing that’s happened before: “Too cold to hold, too deep to swim through.” Thus the title.

Despite the distinguished parentage of “God Only Knows” — Prine co-wrote it with Phil Spector — the song is repetitive and pretty much a throwaway. The title alone reveals all the wisdom the song has to offer. And it’s not strengthened by Prine reciting the entirety of “Now I lay me down to sleep” as the bridge.

God plays a considerably lesser role in Prine’s riotous “When I Get To Heaven,” the final song on the album. Here He’s basically a divine doorman: “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand/Thank Him for more blessings than one man can stand/Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Sturgill Simpson and John Prine

Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

Once that’s done, Prine really aims to cut loose: “Gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale/Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” And why not? The afterlife is eternal life where there’s no need for pesky health nuts.

“When I Get To Heaven” displays Prine at his most engaging — whimsical, word-slinging, mellowed enough with age to know what really matters and eager to share it all.

He might imagine a better cocktail, though.

John Prine and Randy Travis

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Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.