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John Prine Has Stories Enough To Fill A Book

An image from <em>Beyond Words</em>, the new book of photos and song lyrics compiled by John Prine.
Courtesy of John Prine
An image from Beyond Words, the new book of photos and song lyrics compiled by John Prine.

When it comes to the great American singer/songwriters, John Prine has always been grievously underserved in the book department ... until now. Incredibly, the entire literary canon dedicated to Prine, whose deceptively simple, wildly inspired songs frame everyday lives in extraordinary ways, previously consisted of a single, unauthorized biography. But now Prine has finally trotted out a tome of his own: Beyond Words.

/ Courtesy of Oh Boy Records
Courtesy of Oh Boy Records

The man who began his professional life as a Chicago mail carrier, and whose songs make a virtue of a humble proletarian perspective, seemingly doesn't possess enough ego to unleash an autobiography. Instead, Beyond Words, released through Prine's own longtime Oh Boy imprint, is a combination songbook/photo collection, spiced with some of the anecdotes behind the images.

The book features photos from every phase of Prine's life — the information card he filled out to sign up for an open mic at Chicago's Fifth Peg in 1969; his Grandaddy Ham running the mail ferry across the Green River in Paradise, KY (saluted in Prine's song "Paradise"); the original handwritten draft of the widely covered "Angel from Montgomery"; an early unfavorable concert review with the headline "Entertaining as a Dog Bite." And in between the chords and lyrics to songs from all across his career — from the early existential gem "The Late John Garfield Blues" to 1991's devilishly absurdist "The Sins of Memphisto" and beyond — Prine drops some nuggets of reminiscence about the path he's traveled.

In the video clips below, the man whose blend of cockeyed humor and almost Zen-like poetic observation resulted in some of the post-Dylan era's most powerful songs offers up some more extensive stories about the memories the book brings up.

A childhood photo with Prine's brother and cousin calls up a story of a swampy boat trip in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky to a ghostly, abandoned prison, where a young Prine learned about the secret connection between cucumbers and copperheads.

Looking at an early draft of "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)" brings up a Sunday morning during Prine's tenure as an Episcopal Church altar boy when a shocking glimpse of mortality planted the seed for the song.

Prine tells the tale behind a Maywood, Illinois drive-in burger joint where hot-rodding teens let it all hang out and a certain 14-year-old boy had an extremely unenviable job.

Prine walks us through the disparate inspirations for 1995's "Lake Marie," from an expedition to a Twin Lakes, Wisconsin library and a dive into local history to the artistic confluence of Van Morrison, Hank Williams and Native American poet John Trudell.

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