John Prine painted his songs on a broad canvas of themes, moods and insights. It’s little wonder, then, that artists in virtually every format flocked to record their own distinctive versions of them. He was simultaneously folk, country, pop, blues, bluegrass and jazz.
For example, his “Angel From Montgomery” was recorded by artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, John Denver, Carly Simon, Tanya Tucker, Susan Tedeschi and Old Crow Medicine Show. “Paradise” found favor on a spectrum that included the Seldom Scene, Tom T. Hall, John Fogerty and String Cheese Incident. “Hello in There” engaged the recorded affection of both Bette Midler, Jason Isbell, Joan Baez, and 10,000 Maniacs. You get the idea.
Here are 10 of Prine’s classic compositions, brilliantly covered.
“All the Best” (Zac Brown Band)
Regret, resentment and heartbreak coming at you in monosyllables. A primer for those whose emotions are as simple and complex as words written in granite.
“Angel From Montgomery” (Bonnie Raitt)
Bluesy as the Mississippi Delta, this chronicles a dead-end life that grows bleaker every day. “There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em buzzing/and I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today/How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”
“Grandpa Was a Carpenter” (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with John Prine)
If Prine and Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name’” was “the perfect country song,” then “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” is the perfect imagist poem. A loving warts-and-all tribute to the guy who taught the grandson life and values. Not exactly a cover, as Prine himself joined the lineup of the Dirt Band’s 1989 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two.
“I Just Want to Dance With You” (George Strait)
A simple, sweet and eloquent declaration of love just as that sensation blossoms. Prine co-wrote this one with Roger Cook. Strait took it to No. 1 at country radio in 1998.
“Love Is on a Roll” (Don Williams)
Well, it’s pretty clear what’s on this guy’s mind: “Usually I meet with the boys on Friday/only this mornin’ she said this is my day.” Another Roger Cook co-write and another No. 1 hit, this time in 1983.
“Paradise” (the Everly Brothers)
Possibly the most graceful, forceful and mournful song ever written about the environmental carnage of strip-mining. Idyllic images of childhood clash with the devastating conclusion: “And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/down by the Green River where Paradise lay/Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
“Sam Stone” (Johnny Cash)
No one matches Cash’s ability in telling this story about a war-crazed veteran who destroys himself and shatters his family with his ravenous drug habit. “And the gold roared through his veins/like a thousand railroad trains.”
“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” (Miranda Lambert)
Prine was at the head of his class when it came to recognizing how absurd the world can be — and Lambert knows every twist and turn. “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown/That’s the way the world goes round.”
“Unwed Fathers” (Tammy Wynette)
Prine wrote this condemnation of hit-and-run fathers with Bobby Braddock, while Wynette filled it up with tears. “From teenage lover to unwed mother/kept undercover like some bad dream/But unwed fathers can’t be bothered/They’ll run like water through a mountain stream.”
“You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (David Allan Coe)
Originally attributed solely to Prine’s friend, Steve Goodman, this recitation of country clichés will have you flashing back to many of your country favorites. Prine later confessed to participating, and his wry sense of humor is evident throughout. “Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/and I went to pick her up in the rain/but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/she got run over by a damned old train.”
Oh, John won’t you take us back to Music Row’s bounty?