I recently met a young woman who had an unconventional tattoo on her shoulder. It was an orb with a dimpled surface and a large, amorphous dark spot in the middle. I asked about her ink. “It’s a bruised orange,” she said, and explained that it was inspired by a song of the same name by a folk singer who her father had long loved, and who had been a constant in her life through twenty-some years.
That’s the kind of devotion that John Prine inspires.
Prine, who plays Kansas City’s Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland on Saturday, March 11, served in the United States Army in the 1960s before making his mark in the Chicago folk music scene and capturing the attention of Kris Kristofferson, who helped him secure a contract with Atlantic Records. In the near half-century since, Prine has released twenty albums and amassed one of the finest collections of songs that any American artist can boast.
At times, Prine’s two-pack-habit wheeze and finger-picked acoustic guitar can make him easy to mistake for Bob Dylan (and a song like “The Great Compromise” contains obvious echoes of “Desolation Row”). But where Dylan deploys poetic devices, Prine prefers prose. With a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s sense of drama, he is a master of the story-song.
His 1971 self-titled debut is chock-full of them, including tunes like “Illegal Smile” (about the illicit escape of marijuana) and the grand, gospel-tinged “Angel from Montgomery” that have become standards. But no song is more affecting than “Sam Stone,” Prine’s heartbreaking tale of a soldier home from Vietnam.
“Sam Stone came home to the wife and family after serving in the conflict overseas / And the time that he served had shattered all his nerves and left a little shrapnel in his knee.”
From those opening lines on, Prine painted a hyper-realistic portrait of an ex-soldier’s experience that had not been seen before. He showed a man grappling with PTSD before we even knew what that was. He showed a man numbing his pain (“there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”) and meeting his maker at a time when such things simply weren’t discussed. John Prine told a truth that many didn’t want to know, and there are few better things that can be said of an artist.
Though Prine has largely been defined as a folksinger with a rock and roll audience, he has often incorporated straight (well, almost straight) country music into his albums, and his most recent long-player — 2016’s “For Better, Or Worse” — is pure, old-school Nashville. This is Prine as interpreter, not writer (there are no original compositions here), as he takes on 15 country classics, all but one in duets with gifted female vocalists, including Miranda Lambert, Susan Tedeschi and Kacey Musgraves. It’s a charming, homespun affair with Prine’s weather-beaten voice (time and two bouts with cancer have left their marks) playing lovingly off of his collaborators.
One of those collaborators is Amanda Shires, who sings with Prine on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” and who opens the show on March 11. Though Shires has often been defined by her collaborations — as a teen, she played violin with the legendary western swing band The Texas Playboys, and she often plays with her husband Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit — Amanda Shires has spent the past decade finding her own identity as a singer, songwriter and performer. She has released six albums since 2005, and her most recent, 2016’s “My Piece of Land,” is a sterling collection of folk-inflected country songs. With a slight rasp to her crystal-bell voice, Shires is a singer-songwriter first, here, with her virtuoso violin featured only in a supporting role. Produced by Dave Cobb (whose recent credits include Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Lake Street Dive), the record has the warm vinyl feel of classic country, but with a contemporary point of view the recalls modern folk acts like The Civil Wars. Though a quiet intensity runs through it, there are moments that build to more forceful peaks, like the album closer “You Are My Home.” If you’re going to see Prine, make sure you get there early.
Before Prine and Shires play at The Midland, one of the giants of the alternative folk movement returns to Kansas City. Conor Oberst, one of our most prolific and gifted artists, plays at The Madrid Theatre on Friday, March 10.
The Omaha native, who first drew broad acclaim with the brilliant 2002 album “Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” by his band Bright Eyes, has been working compulsively and feverishly for two decades now. Though just 37 years old, Oberst has more than 20 albums to his credit between Bright Eyes, solo releases, and various side-project bands, including Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk. In the wake of grunge, Oberst stepped forth with a quieter and more nakedly vulnerable style. With his trademark plaintive warble, Oberst stands out on the thinnest limb, acoustic guitar in hand, and pours out his heart.
Last October, Oberst released “Ruminations,” the sparest and most direct work of his career. Recorded in just two days, it’s a solo album in the truest sense, featuring only Oberst’s voice, piano, guitar and harmonica. It’s the kind of thing Neil Young might have done between Crazy Horse tours in the 1970s.
Since then, Oberst has recorded those same songs (and more) with a full band, and the result is “Salutations,” which is set for release on March 17. While “Ruminations” might well have been titled “Another Side of Conor Oberst,” the four tracks released so far from “Salutations” hit more like “Highway 61 Revisited.” The track “Napalm” isn’t just like Tom Thumb’s blues, but it’s close.
Lucky for music lovers in Kansas City, they can see Prine, Shires and Oberst this weekend in less time than it took him to record “Ruminations.”