Friday, June 03, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 3, 2005

Here’s one of those strange incidences where my main job as a political writer creeps into my “fun” job as music columnist.

The first time I heard the new John Prine album Fair & Square, a line from the first song leaped out of my car stereo and smacked me in the face.

“I got some friends in Albuquerque, where the governor calls me `Gov’ …”

Dang, I thought. This is better than six appearances on Larry King Live .
First chance I got, I asked Gov. Bill Richardson’s spokesman Billy Sparks whether his boss knows Prine and if so, does the governor call Prine “gov”? Sparks said he doesn’t think the two “govs” are friends. And for the record, unlike fellow musicians Quincy Jones, Herb Albert and Andy Williams, Prine isn’t listed among Richardson’s campaign contributors.

One pal of mine suggested that the governor Prine sings about might be former Gov. Gary Johnson. The key to this theory lies in Prine’s old song “Illegal Smile.” (I think my friend was smiling that way when he brought this up.)

But notwithstanding that political wild goose chase, I love this album. Backed by a small, mostly acoustic group (with a smattering of guest harmonies by Alison Krauss, Dan Tryminski and Mindy Smith), Prine shows there’s still gold in those classic three-or-four-chord melody structures he does so well.

Fair & Square is Prine’s first album of new material since 1999’s In Spite of Ourselves, a collection of duets with a bevy of female singing partners, and first album of primarily original new material since 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.
During this last decade, Prine has struggled with throat cancer. His voice has dropped an octave or so, but that always was a scratchy instrument. The important thing is that he didn’t lose his sense of humor nor his sense of poignancy.

There are some classic Prine tales here.

One of the best is “Crazy as a Loon,” about an ambitious young man with “a picture of another man's wife tattooed on my arm” who heads off to Hollywood “just to have my feelings hurt.” From “the wrong end of a broom” in Tinsel Town, the hapless protagonist ventures to Nashville and New York with the same result.

In “Other Side of Town,” a live cut, Prine sings of a henpecked husband whose mind wanders, during his wife’s nagging, to a fantasy bar on the astral plane.

On the slow but sturdy “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” Prine rails against unfeeling people.

“You open up their hearts/And here's what you'll find/A few frozen pizzas/Some ice cubes with hair/A broken Popsicle/You don't want to go there.”

But later in the song, gets political.

“… you're feeling your freedom, and the world's off your back, some cowboy from Texas, starts his own war in Iraq.”

It’s obvious that Prine still believes that a flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.

Prine’s songwriting is the main draw on Fair & Square. (He collaborates on some tunes with partners including Keith Sykes and “Funky” Donnie Fritts.) But he also includes a couple of excellent covers. “Clay Pigeons” is a sad song by the late Texas sultan of sad songs, Blaze Foley. And the most rocking track on the album is “Bear Creek,” a Carter Family song.

Concert alert: According to his Web site, Gov. Prine is coming to the Kiva auditorium in Albuquerque on July 29.

{Hear a whole lotta John Prine Friday night on the Santa Fe Opry, KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio. Show starts at 10 p.m., the Prine segment will start about 11 p.m. }

(Check out

Also recommended:

Georgia Hard by Robbie Fulks. Back on his second album South Mouth, Fulks had a hilarious little ditty called “Fuck This Town,” a vitriolic tirade against the Nashville music establishment. “I thought they'd struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie Milsap,” he barked in the song.

Since that time, Fulks and Milsap appeared, though not together on an album, (a Disney various-artists tribute called O Mickey, Where Art Thou?)

It’s not hard to imagine Mac Davis or even Milsap himself crooning Fulks tunes like “You Don’t Want What I Have,” “I Never Did Like Planes,” “It’s Always Raining Somewhere” or the title song.

Fulks flirts with country schlock here. Maybe he even steals a kiss. But with a strong band, including Merle Haggard vet Redd Volkaert on guitar and Lloyd Green on steel and Sam Bush on mandolin, the performances are all solid.

And with Fulks writing the lyrics, there’s enough twistedness to give the songs strange edges. “Doin’ Right (For All the Wrong Reasons)” might sound like a Jimmy Buffet song on the surface, but the story is about a guy who avoids infidelity only because his wife is rich.

There’s some good hard-core honky stompers here, such as “each Night I Try” and “All You Can Cheat.” And there’s a couple of madcap Fulks novelty tunes like the ones that made fans love him in the first place.

“I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me),” a song about a sloppy-drunk pick-up attempt is a fun-filled duet with his wife Donna Fulks.

“Countrier Than Thou” starts out as a wicked slap at practitioners of C&W purism. But then it turns political.

“He’s got a ranch, with a Stetson / He's a hip-shooting ex-oil king/ He even talks like Buddy Epson/ But he’s sittin’ in the West Wing … won’t somebody please explain/ How you get a county sheriff walkin’ with a frat boy’s brain.”

Along with Prine’s song listed above, this one definitely won’t be found on the president’s iPod.

{For for Fulks’ apology to Ronnie Milsap, CLICK HERE }

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