John Prine is on tour in support of his April 2018 release, The Tree of Forgiveness, his first collection of new material since 2005’s Fair and Square. The new material stands side-by-side with Prine’s now legendary early compositions and has garnered praise from fans and critics alike. On Friday, September 21, the crowd at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall got an opportunity to hear Prine and his band perform new tunes, along with old favorites, including several songs that were a part of his first album, released 47 years ago.
Todd Snider opened the show, and the storytelling singer-songwriter proved to be a natural fit. Snider lives in Nashville now, but he grew up in the Portland area, attending Beaverton High School. His songs “Rose City” and “D.B. Cooper,” along with a story about washing “Todd Snider Rules” into the dirt of the Vista Ridge Tunnels, were well received by the locals. Snider drew laughs from stories and songs alike, and, as would also be the case with Prine, his older political songs are as poignant today as they were when written. “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” offered a humorous look into Snider’s political leanings.
John Prine is a beloved American folk hero, and the audience showed its appreciation upon his taking the stage. Accompanied by a four-piece band, Prine kicked off his show with “Six O’Clock News” and “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” and then let the crowd know that he was going to play all of the songs from the new album, along with a bunch of old stuff. The mix of old and new songs formed a compelling set of music. Prine has expressed surprise at the warm reception The Tree of Forgiveness has received, and he seemed genuinely joyous to be up there sharing his craft. Indeed, Prine is enjoying a surge in popularity. The Tree of Forgiveness debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and Prine just won Artist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Music Awards.
The new album is a microcosm of John Prine’s songwriting sensibilities. There are unique, colorful visions into past times and places (“Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone)”), simple, sweet love songs (“I Have Met My Love Today”), songs that show his quirky sense of humor (and love of Pluto) (“Lonesome Friends of Science”), protest songs (“Caravan of Fools”), and lyrics that talk about smoking a 9-mile-long cigarette (“When I Get To Heaven”). Prine introduced “Summer’s End” as what he thought was the prettiest song on the album.
As exciting as it was to hear all of the new songs live, folks in the audience rightly wanted to hear some of the tunes that helped seal Prine’s legendary status as an American songwriter. Six songs from his 1971 debut album were played, including “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” “Hello In There,” and “Angel From Montgomery.”
Prine was jovial and engaging. He told some stories about writing songs, and commented, “If you’re a songwriter, and you’re married, you damn well better write a song for your wife,” before a lovely take on “Boundless Love.” The funniest episode of the evening involved Todd Snider playing “In Spite of Ourselves” in duo with Prine. As Prine explained before the song, it usually requires a girl partner. The two of them could barely hold back laughter as Snider sang, “…caught him once, sniffin’ my undies.” Prine said he expected it to be on YouTube by midnight. It was.
When the band came back out for an encore, they played “When I Get To Heaven,” the last song on the new album. Then, after Prine explained that the image on the screen behind the band was of the post office in Paradise, Kentucky, in 1968, the day before they tore it down, they played “Paradise.” Two songs, written nearly 50 years apart, sung by Mr. John Prine, a mighty planet, an ordinary star.
Prine has said that when he was creating The Tree of Forgiveness, he thought it was going to be his last one. But, if things went really well, he couldn’t see why he wouldn’t do something else. John Prine doesn’t owe the world anything. But with that said, things seem to be going really well, John. Really well.