John Prine Shares His Songwriting Process
John Prine for "Summer's End" - John Prine / Youtube
In celebration of the late iconic folk singer-songwriter’s life and body of work, let us take a deep dive into John Prine’s songwriting process.
Prine shared that he didn’t want to release another album that was just a so-so effort, as he’s done it and has no plans to do it again. He says that there are a lot of people that still wait on him and his releases, and said that they didn’t deserve some half-assed effort that was put out every few years just for the heck of it. With that in mind, here are some excerpts from a 2017 Rolling Stone interview of the singer-songwriter and the secrets behind some of his hits.
“Angel From Montgomery” – John Prine (1971)
Prine shared that he wrote this song from a woman’s perspective, saying that it was important to speak from the first-person point of view when you create a character. “I could say “she is lonely, or she doesn’t wash the pots and pans,” [but] you gotta write her from the person that you’re singing about, you know?” he said. “When I had all that pointed out to me many years later, I thought, wow, ignorance is bliss as a writer, I think. A lot of women do “Angel From Montgomery” and it’s always interesting to hear. A lot of them I hear are doing Bonnie Raitt’s version. I always loved Bonnie, and Bonnie put her name on that song and she got it out there for the world to hear,” Prine said, praising Raitt’s efforts.
“Far From Me” – John Prine (1971)
“Far From Me” was Prine’s example of how he progressed with every song that he wrote. He said that he’d already figured out what he wanted to do, adding that: “I didn’t think about how I wanted to set it up, but I pictured it first and then filled in the picture, the way I could see how it went down between this guy and this waitress. “We used to laugh together / And we’d dance to any old song / Well, you know, she still laughs with me / But she waits just a second too long,” I was trying to write about the in-between spaces – the time in between the doors are getting slammed and sitting there having an argument, what is that little space in between? That’s kind of unexplainable. But you explain it with something that’s very plausible and something that happens. When people react to that, that’s the reward for me.”
“Souvenirs” – Diamonds In The Rough (1972)
“Souvenirs” was written with Prine’s brother, Doug, whom he went to a carnival with during their childhood. Doug was lost in the crowd, where his parents frantically searched for him along with the police sifting through the throng of people. “I remember I was crying, and I thought my brother was gone forever, you know,” Prine said. “And I had this small horse he’d won it for me at one of the stands. A small horse with red sparkles all over it, and I was holding it in my hand and I just kept thinking, “Oh, it’s all I’ve got left of him is this souvenir.” And later, I told him years after I wrote that song, “You know, that song’s about you … I kept coming up with that picture of me as a kid, and me thinking you were lost forever, you know.” And I’d always dedicate it to him. I sang it to him on his deathbed. It was just the emotion of that happening, and I put it into words so I could get over to somebody else how I felt that day, without explaining that it was about losing my brother,” he concluded.