In 1971 Chicago folk-singer John Prine put out his first album. In the years since it has become a celebrated classic, featuring such timeless songs as “Sam Stone”, “Hello in There”, “Paradise”, and “Angel From Montgomery.” Though I wouldn’t hear these or any of Prine’s music until nearly forty years later, “John Prine” is one of my favorite albums. So when I heard that there was a new book about the album I jumped on it.
Erin Osmon’s exploration of “John Prine” is my first foray into the 33 1/3 series, which offers book-length examinations of influential and popular albums. As such, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I suppose I was expecting something akin to an oral history of the album itself, with an exhaustive blow-by-blow account of the writing and recording of each song. Instead, what Osmon presents is an anthropological survey of the folk music scene in Chicago from the late 1950s until Prine’s early days performing in the city’s clubs in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Most of this is interesting information though some of it seems frankly a bit extraneous to Prine and the album in question. Osmon also frequently delves into the character of Chicago itself and there she is on less certain ground. She is prone to sweeping, unprovable generalizations about Chicagoans and Midwesterners and their supposed “values.”
Alongside this exploration of the folk “scene” Osmon offers a family history of the Prines and their migration from Kentucky coal country to the suburbs of Chicago. She follows John’s childhood fascination with the guitar, his time in the army, and his early career at the Post Office, which offered him plenty of time to think and work on his songs.
As a Prine fanatic who wasn’t around for the first few decades of his career, I did appreciate some of the biographical background Osmon provides about his early days. Though I knew the by now well-worn story about Roger Ebert “discovering” Prine after walking out of a bad movie and into The Fifth Peg folk club, I was totally unfamiliar with the surprisingly large parts Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka had to play in Prine’s success. Yes, that Paul Anka. And though it’s not a surprise given what I knew of him, it’s wonderful to have confirmation that Prine’s friend Steve Goodman really was a great guy. Even Bob Dylan, who Prine would always be compared to, shows up for a spell.
Since Prine’s tragic death from Covid-19 back in April 2020 I have been hoping that a biography was in the works. Erin Osmon’s book is only part of the story, but for now it will have to do.