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John Prine plays his guitar and looks at the camera during a live performance

John Prine On Music, Cancer And Why He Never Thought He'd Be A Recording Artist

The singer, songwriter and guitarist underwent surgeries in 1996 and 2013 that affected his throat and voice. He likes his voice better now: "It dropped down lower and feels friendlier."


Other segments from the episode on June 18, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 18, 2018: Interview with John Prine; Review of the book 'There There.'


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist John Prine. In a review of his new album, "The Tree Of Forgiveness," our rock critic Ken Tucker said that Prine's knack for colloquial language and metrical precision has been an inspiration to many younger singer-songwriters. Prine released his first album in 1971 with several songs that remain staples of his repertoire, like "Angel From Montgomery," "Paradise," "Sam Stone" and "Hello In There."

Among the many people who have recorded his songs are Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and Bette Midler. In 2016, he was honored by the writers' organization PEN for lyrics of literary excellence. Last year, Prine won the artist of the year award at the Americana Awards. It's kind of amazing that he's still performing. In 1996, he had neck surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The surgery also removed parts of his neck, severed some nerves in his tongue and damaged several salivary glands. In 2013, he was operated on for lung cancer.

He's made a remarkable comeback. "Tree Of Forgiveness," his first album of new songs in 13 years, has gotten some great reviews, and he's been touring. Let's start with a track from the new album. This is "Summer's End," co-written with Pat McLaughlin. Brandi Carlile sings backup vocals.


JOHN PRINE: (Singing) Summer's end's around the bend, just flying. The swimming suits are on the land, just drying. I'll meet you there, per our conversation. I hope I didn't ruin your whole vacation. Well, you never know how far from home you're feeling until you've watched the shadows cross the ceiling. Well, I don't know, but I can see it snowing. In your car, the windows are wide open. Just come on home. Come on home. No, you don't have to be alone. Just come on home.

GROSS: That's John Prine, from his new album, "The Tree of Forgiveness." John Prine, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you here. Is there a story behind that song?

PRINE: Well, the big story behind that particular song, "Summer's End," first of all, it's my favorite track from "The Tree Of Forgiveness." You know, it just came out so pretty. A good buddy of mine, Pat McLaughlin, and I wrote that song. And we've been writing together - we've been friends longer than this, but we've been writing together since my "Missing Years" record in '91.

And it's just uncanny the way we write together. I mean, we can finish each other's sentences. You know, I'll just throw an image at him, and he comes back with one. And we don't really decide what the subject is that we're writing about. We just kind of go with whatever sounds good and feels good to both of us. And the fact that that song ended like that's how we approached it and ended up as freely as it did in his lonesome and many other things was a surprise to me because we were literally going - like, it was like pingpong. We were going back and forth with each line in the song.

GROSS: What about the melody?

PRINE: The melody is just another simple John Prine patented melody. I mean, all I'm trying to do is play "Freight Train," I think, you know?


GROSS: The Elizabeth Cotten song?

PRINE: I just think of - yeah, that's how I learned to finger pick - was I learned how to finger pick by playing - trying to pick like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt - so much so that I used to put myself - when I was 14 years old, I'd sit in the closet in the dark in case I ever went blind to see if I could play.

GROSS: Wow. That's pretty strange.

PRINE: Yeah, you're telling me.

GROSS: So can you do it? Do you ever have to look down at your fingers when you're playing?

PRINE: I can't. My belly's too big.


PRINE: I can't see my hands. Good thing I practiced in the dark.

GROSS: You've been through a lot in the past few years. You've had neck cancer and lung cancer. Can we talk about how you were able to get back into shape to be able to perform and tour? I mean, the neck surgery severed nerves in your tongue. It damaged salivary glands. Did you have to learn to sing or speak again?

PRINE: I had to do some - they gave me a speech therapist that was part of the therapy when I was just getting over the initial surgery - the neck surgery. That was a pretty big surgery. It was my first really big surgery. And it was a big one. And I didn't realize I had anything - any slur in my speech whatsoever. But it killed some of the nerves in your tongue. And it kind of made you have - I guess they would call it, like, lazy, you know, where your tongue would just go to one side naturally, and you'd slur some of your words. So I did some speech therapy. But I told them where I was going in for that surgery - I had talked to the surgeon and the radiologist. And they had to do a lot of radiation on my throat, right across my vocal chords. And then the radiologist was explained to me - he was going to make a shield for my vocal chords. And I said, have you ever heard me sing?

GROSS: (Laughter).

PRINE: I said if you leave me with something - if I can make a noise, I said, I'll come out with a voice on the other end, you know? And the surgeon told me my golf swing will improve after surgery. I said I hate golf. So at least they left with a voice to sing. I think it improved my voice, if anything. I always had a hard time listening to my singing before my surgery.

GROSS: So you got a new voice, and you feel different about it?

PRINE: Yeah. It dropped down lower and feels friendlier to me. So I can actually sit in the studio and listen to my singing play back. Before, I'd run the other way.

GROSS: That's really surprising, I think. Do you feel like your voice sounds more lived in than it did before? I've heard singers complain that they've been through so much, and you don't hear it in their voice - you know, that they feel you don't hear it, that their voice doesn't sound as troubled as they feel or as worn as they feel or as experienced as they feel.

PRINE: Well, with me, my early recordings - I had a difficult time listening back to them because I was so nervous. I was kind of thrown into - I didn't expect to do this for a living, being a recording artist. I was just playing music for the fun of it and writing songs. That was kind of my escape, you know, from the humdrum of the world. And everything happened so fast for me. I became a recording artist before I knew it. And I just - when I would listen to my old records, I'd just hear this young, extremely nervous fella that that made me want to run out of the room, you know, rather than listen to what he had to say.

GROSS: So, you know, in addition to the neck surgery that you had for cancer, a few years later, you had lung cancer. And you had an operation on one of your lungs. So what was it like to learn how to be able to get enough breath to support your singing?

PRINE: Well, luckily, I had a friend who was a trainer, you know? I mean, he's individually trained people for either weight loss and stuff like that. We were friends. We just like to get together and B.S., you know? And he - when I told him I had to get the surgery, he volunteered to come to our house and help me get back in shape to get on the road. He had me running up and down our staircase three times. Then he'd put a guitar around my neck, and I'd sing three songs without taking a breath. You know, and this was all after losing half a lung. And that - I didn't know I could train like that. My wife didn't, either, because I hadn't previously put that much into training before.

GROSS: I like that because it's tailored to who you are and what you do, as opposed to giving you, you know, just the standard exercises.

PRINE: Exactly. I'm no good with that. If somebody tells me to work or exercise, I go the other way. I'll come up with an excuse.

GROSS: So one more thing about the surgeries. I know you knew Roger Ebert, and he gave a boost to your career really early on before anybody knew you. He gave you a great review when you were just performing in Chicago before you'd recorded. And I don't know if you remained close. But he had cancer, and he had jaw surgery that basically left him unable to speak. I was wondering if you've communicated with him at all about your surgery. I think he was still - he would've still been alive.

PRINE: Well, he - after Roger initially got, you know, sick, I was - I had played a show. And him and his wife came to it. And this was after my surgery. It was when I was out touring behind "The Missing Years." And we got to talk a little bit. But obviously it was a social situation. You know, it was more like we looked at each other like we were members of the club - you know, both having been through our surgeries - him even more so.

He was really, at the particular time that he wrote a review on me, I was a mailman still. And I was just singing this one night a week in this Chicago club - the Fifth Peg on W Armitage. And Roger had walked out on a movie that he was supposed to review for the next day. This was a Thursday night. And Friday was the big day for the entertainment section in the Chicago Sun Times. And Roger's reviews, he always got his own page - the back page of the entertainment section.

And instead of reviewing the movie, he said he walked into this pub to get a beer because the popcorn was too salty in the movie theater. And somebody told him to go in the backroom and listen to this kid. I was the kid. And he wrote a full page on - "Singing Mailman Delivers The Message," I think that was the headline.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great.

PRINE: And I never had an empty seat after that. I was still - like I said, I was still making my living as a mailman. And I was singing after that three nights a week and two shows a night. And there was a line outside. And things just got better from then on.

GROSS: This would have been about - what? - 1969?

PRINE: Late 1970.


PRINE: Yeah, early '71 is when I got my record contract. I had a record come out by August of '71. Things happened really fast.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist John Prine. He has a new album called "The Tree of Forgiveness." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist John Prine. His new album is called "The Tree Of Forgiveness."

I want to play another track from your new album "The Tree Of Forgiveness." And all the songs on this are co-written. This one was co-written with Phil Spector. You started the song with him in 1978. I think you finished it for the new album. So how did you and Phil Spector meet up? I mean, my initial reaction was, wow, that doesn't seem to - that seems like a really unusual musical fit because, you know, my first thought was, like, Phil Spector - girl groups, the Ronettes, Darlene Love. Then I was thinking, well, Phil Spector did produce music by John Lennon later on. And he produced a Leonard Cohen album. So what brought you together with him?

PRINE: Robert Hilburn was the premiere music critic for the LA Times for about 35 years. And he was an early champion of my stuff. He was, like, out in the West Coast. That's how I kind of developed out there as quick as I did because of Robert Hilburn's columns. If he had to mention the letters J, P or anything in any review, he would somehow - it could be about Led Zeppelin, and he would sneak my name into it, you know.

So anyway, he's the guy that introduced me to Phil Spector. I ran into him in the late '70s out in Hollywood - ran into Hilburn, that is. And I asked him what he was up to. And he said he was working on a book on Phil Spector. And he was up at his house every night interviewing him. And he said, do you want come up there with me? And I said, well, Phil Spector would know me from Adam. And he said, well, he was quoting your song "Donald & Lydia" the other night. And I said really, and I said, well, I'll come up there and say hello. So I went up there. And it turns out it was just around the time that he produced the Leonard Cohen record. And it wasn't out yet.

So the first thing Phil Spector did was take me into his snooker room with these big speakers. And he cranked it up to 11 and played Leonard Cohen on it - the top volume. The snooker balls were vibrating around the table like one of those electric football games. And I get done listening to the record. I couldn't hear a thing that Leonard Cohen was saying because the music was so loud.

And the whole evening kind of went like that. It was a big circus - sort of a show. You know, Phil had a couple of bodyguards with him all the time. Your drink never got past - lower than half full. And these guys - one looked like a squirrelly, sort of skinny guy. And the other guy looked like Chewbacca. And they were with him everywhere. And Phil had a three-piece suit on with a shoulder holster. All of them were carrying pistols, you know. And it was a pretty crazy evening.

And I got up to leave. And I called a taxi about - I don't know - 1:30 in the morning. And Phil's walking me to the door. And we passed by a piano. And he sits down at the piano and hands me an unplugged electric guitar. And we wrote a song called "If You Don't Want My Love" in about - not even 30 minutes. And when he was doing that, he was totally normal guy - just straight-ahead songwriter doing his craft. There was nothing - there was no big circus about anything.

And I left after that. And I came back about six months later to play. And I'd record the song "If You Don't Want My Love" for my "Bruised Orange" record. And I wanted him to hear it, so I played it for him at his house. And that night, on the way out, we did the same thing - stopped at the piano and wrote "God Only Knows" - at least half of it. And I kept meaning to finish it over the years. It'd be the first song - when I'd think about finishing an unfinished song, "God Only Knows" was the first one I'd go to over the years. And I just couldn't finish it. I didn't have - you know, it was a very simple, basic song. I think that's why I had such a hard time finishing it.

GROSS: So part of the lyric of "God Only Knows" is God only knows the price you pay for the ones you betray along the way. You didn't know...

PRINE: Actually it's if I should betray myself today, then God only knows the price you pay.

GROSS: Yeah. Thank you.



GROSS: So, OK, thanks for the correction. So when you were writing this - I don't know if that line was written when you were working with Spector, but you could not have known...

PRINE: No, that's one of the one's I - that's one of the one's I wrote just a week before...


PRINE: ...I went in the studio.

GROSS: Yeah, because you could not have known he was going to commit murder and be in prison by the time you completed the song.

PRINE: No, that's not one of my talents.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PRINE: I can't tell the future.

GROSS: What was your reaction having written, you know, a song and a half with him? What was your reaction when you found out about the murder?

PRINE: Well, I mean, I was shocked but not shocked because I don't - I mean, I can't comment on whether I thought it was a - whether I thought it was first-degree murder or not, you know? But I do know he was always - he always had guns around. And he was always waving them around, you know? And I'm not sure exactly how the whole thing happened, but that was the part I was not shocked about. When you got all of those guns sitting around, you know, something's - one of them is bound to go off sooner or later.

GROSS: Right.

PRINE: And I didn't know Phil well enough to know what his true personality was. I'm not sure that people close to him knew that.

GROSS: My guest is John Prine. His new album is called "The Tree Of Forgiveness." After a break, we'll talk more and hear more music, and Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about urban Indians by Native American writer Tommy Orange. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. And here's the song from John Prine's new album, the song he co-wrote with Phil Spector, called "God Only Knows."


PRINE: (Singing) God only knows the price that you pay for the ones you hurt along the way. If I should betray myself today, then God only knows the price I pay.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) God only knows. God only knows.

PRINE: (Singing) God only knows the way that I feel is only a part of the way I feel. If I can't reveal the way that I feel, then God only knows the way I feel.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) God only knows. God only knows.

PRINE: (Singing) Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Oh...

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) God only knows. God only knows. God only knows. God only knows.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Da-da-dah-da-da. Dada-da-da-dah-de-dum (ph)...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with songwriter and singer John Prine, whose best known songs include "Angel From Montgomery," "Sam Stone," "Paradise" and "Hello In There." His new album "The Tree Of Forgiveness" is his first album of new songs in 13 years.

So let's talk about your background. You grew up in Maywood, Ill. Was that like a small town outside of Chicago?

PRINE: Yeah, it's an old suburb - you know, almost old as the city itself. It was right next to the suburb Oak Park where Hemingway is from. And there was a stark difference between Maywood and Oak Park. Maywood was, like, full of minorities, you know? My mother and father came up from Kentucky and settled in Maywood because it was - it had the American Can Company there. And my dad got a job there in the '30s and helped organize the steelworkers' union.

And Maywood was really different than the other suburbs around it. One suburb would be all Italian-Americans, and the next one would be all Polish-Americans in another suburb. There was kind of clusters of ethnic neighborhoods. And Maywood had - we were about 50 percent African-American, Hispanics and people from the South that had moved there for factory work. And it was a - when I look back on it, I think it was a pretty nice environment to grow up in because I was - I know when I got in the Army, a lot of guys I was stationed with had never been friends with anybody from a different (laughter) background at all. You know, and I felt like I grew up in a good background where I had friends from all kind of places.

GROSS: So was your father from Paradise, west Ky.?

PRINE: He was actually born down the road in Mercer, Ky. But he ended up over in Paradise because his father was a carpenter. And he'd work - like, he'd stay three months in a town, rent a house. And when the job was done, he'd put his family up and move to the next town. My dad went to something like 11 different elementary schools and many different high schools too because his father moved around so much. But when he would get jobs - when my grandfather got a job and then went to Hartford, my father ended up in Paradise with all of his cousins from the Smith (ph) side of the family. My mother was born and raised in Paradise.

GROSS: Did anyone from your family work in the coal industry?

PRINE: No, uh-uh. I mean, I had a few cousins that did, but most of them got out. Most of them went to Louisville, Dayton, Ohio, Detroit for working at auto factories or Chicago.

GROSS: So you have a pretty famous song called "Paradise" that's about Paradise, Ky., and how beautiful it is and how the main character in your song wants to go back there. But his father tells him that it's basically too late because it's been hauled away by the coal trains. Did you see that happen to Paradise?

PRINE: I was in the Army. And my dad sent me a newspaper clipping because he knew how much I liked Paradise when we would go there in my childhood. We would go there as much - as often as we could to see my mother's sisters and my dad's family. And he said - he sent me this clipping. He said, that's it. Paradise is gone. You know, they bought up all of the town, tore the town down and strip mined the whole area.

GROSS: Well, the...

PRINE: And so I wrote the song probably just after I got out of the Army. I wrote it for my dad. I realized that years later, that I just wanted my dad to - I put him in the song so he would know I was a country songwriter. He was a huge country music fan, and I used to sing Hank Williams Sr.'s stuff for him and Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff. I put on a little show for him when I first learned to play guitar.

GROSS: So let's hear "Paradise." And this is from your 1971 debut album, "John Prine."


PRINE: (Singing) When I was a child, my family would travel down to western Kentucky where my parents were born. And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn. And Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay? Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking. Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away. Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River to the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill, where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols. But empty Coke bottles was all we would kill. And Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County...

GROSS: So that's John Prine's famous song "Paradise" from his 1971 debut album called "John Prine." So you grew up with a lot of country music because of your father. Did you - it sounds like you turned toward it as opposed to rebelling against it.

PRINE: Oh, yeah. I mean, I - well, I mean, I grew up with rock and roll. But when I learned how to play the guitar, it was from my oldest brother, Dave. Dave is 10 years older than me, and he was - he taught himself how to play fiddle and mandolin and guitar and banjo. And so he came from, like, an old-timey country music thing and also was - he was big into the folk boom of the early '60s. And so when he taught me to play guitar, that's the kind of music I learned to play because that's what he taught me. He gave me a Carter Family record, and I learned all those songs. And not too long after that, I started writing when I was 14. And my melodies always came out like old-timey country stuff.

And at the same time, I was trying to please my dad and wanted to sing some of his favorite songs that he listened to the radio on. And so I learned an entire Hank Williams Sr., an album, a live record with all the stage patter in between. And I used to repeat the patter in between the songs. You know, I did everything but skip when the record (laughter) would skip.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PRINE: (Laughter) I learned that - I learned it, you know, verbatim.

GROSS: Your father died when he was 55. He had a massive heart attack on the front porch of your home. How old were you when that happened?

PRINE: I was 24, and my first record was a month away from being released.

GROSS: Oh, so he never heard it.

PRINE: No, I borrowed a tape recorder from a - from another family. And I had a quarter-inch tape. And I took it to the house, and I played that record for him. And the last song on the record was "Paradise." So when that song came on, he got up and walked into the dining room. It was dark in there. And he sat in the dining room while "Paradise" played.

And he came back in the room afterwards, and I asked him how come he left the room when he - I called it his song because it - he knew it was his story. And he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox. But I think he just didn't want to see me - see him with tears in his eyes. He wasn't in, like - it wasn't like he was in - a sick man, like, in the hospital or anything. He had a massive heart attack sitting out on the front porch watching the cars go by.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist John Prine. He has a new album called "The Tree Of Forgiveness." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is John Prine. He has a new album called "The Tree Of Forgiveness."

I know you grew up near a junkyard and said that all the broken glass looked like a field of glittering diamonds. What was it like to grow up near a junkyard? Did you play in it? Was it...

PRINE: Oh, yeah. We played in it all the time.

GROSS: Were there things in there that you considered treasures? Yeah.

PRINE: That was our war zone. You know, that's where we go to play Army and go to play Cowboys and Indians. I remember one summer, there was these big industrial lightbulbs. And they had dumped them all in this field. We spent the whole summer just breaking glass every possible way we could - slingshots, sitting in trees, dropping bombs on them, you know? And that's probably where that image came from. That, and there was a suburb next to us in Maywood - Broadwood, Ill. When they redid their sidewalks, something that they put in the concrete looked like diamonds shining in the sidewalk when the sun would hit it. And I guess that's where I got all that stuff.

GROSS: Were there junkyard dogs? Did you have to confront dogs in the junkyard, as well?


GROSS: (Laughter) Like a mail route.

PRINE: These were true junkyards - not somebody that owned a junkyard that was going to sell the stuff. This was, like, a city dump.

GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh.

PRINE: Yeah.

GROSS: It was a dump. No, I think of a junkyard as being a business.

PRINE: Oh, no. I know what you mean. Those kind of junkyards - the only ones I ever knew like that were ones with the - where you could take parts off of old autos.

GROSS: Right. Did it smell? Did you live near it, and did it smell?

PRINE: No, it wouldn't - you couldn't dump food there. It was just - people would dump things.

GROSS: Right. Right.

PRINE: Lightbulbs, sofas, you know, stuff like that. It might not have even been a real junkyard. Maybe it was something that the authorities didn't find. But us kids found it.

GROSS: So when you returned from being in the military and serving in West Germany, you moved to Chicago. You moved from a suburb outside of Chicago to Chicago. And you became a mailman there. What neighborhoods did you deliver mail to?

PRINE: No, I became a mailman in the suburbs.

GROSS: Oh, it was in the suburbs.

PRINE: Yeah. I never moved into Chicago. I stayed in the suburbs until I moved to Nashville.

GROSS: I didn't realize that.

PRINE: I was only, like - I was 10 miles directly from the lakefront. That's how close made Maywood to the edge of Chicago. We grew up on Madison Avenue, which is the dividing line between North Chicago - the North Side and the South Side. So we grew up going to both Cubs and Sox games.

GROSS: So did you still live with your parents when you came back from the military?

PRINE: No, I got married while I was in the service. And I married an Italian-American girl. This was - she was my high-school girlfriend. And we lived in Melrose Park, the Italian community that bordered Maywood.

GROSS: How long did the marriage last?

PRINE: That one lasted - yikes.

GROSS: I like the way you say that one lasted (laughter).

PRINE: Well, I've been married three times.

GROSS: Right. But...

PRINE: Yeah, that was 13 years.

GROSS: That's pretty long. So how...

PRINE: Thanks. Congratulations.


GROSS: You've been married to your wife now for over 20 years.

PRINE: Yeah, 23.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So was being a mailman a good job for somebody who was writing songs in their spare time?

PRINE: It was great because there's really not much to do when you're a mailman. I mean, so maybe some mailmen make it into an actual job. But once you're out there on the same streets every day, and you recognize the house houses - you know you're on the right street - you just go out there and stick the mail in the mailbox. In other words, I used to liken my mail route to a library with no books. It was like my imagination was free to roam the whole time I was on the mail route. I wrote a lot of my first record working on the mail route.

GROSS: Was that, like, maybe a good thing that your body was kind of occupied with walking the mail route, but your mind was free to think about lyrics without having to sit in a chair?

PRINE: Because your mind don't want to be thinking about the weather...

GROSS: Well, yeah.

PRINE: ...And the dogs.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

PRINE: I mean, it's a jungle out there, really. I was never so happy as the day I left the Post Office.

GROSS: The dark? What time were you delivering mail?

PRINE: Dogs, not the dark.

GROSS: Oh, dogs. Oh, the dogs.

PRINE: Yeah, the ones that bite. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Were you bitten?

PRINE: Yes. Yeah. I got bit in the best possible place...

GROSS: Uh-oh.

PRINE: ...And ripped my pants and had to go over to ER. That was really embarrassing - having a mailman outfit on with the ass of your pants tore out, you know, and a dog bite. You look like a cartoon.

GROSS: Yeah, I think I've seen that cartoon (laughter).

PRINE: There you go. I was the cartoon.

GROSS: So I want to close with another song from your new album. And I can't decide whether to play "Boundless Love" or "I Have Met My Love Today." Do you want to choose one from those two?

PRINE: Well, "Boundless Love" I got an interesting story about.

GROSS: Tell me.

PRINE: I wrote that with three buddies of mine - David Ferguson, (ph) Dan Auerbach from Black Keys and Pat McLaughlin. I thought I mentioned earlier that we wrote for about 30 years now together. Anyway, the four of us thought it would be a good idea to get together and try and write some songs. I think specifically, we were going to write them for Dan Auerbach's solo project. He was - he's got two solo records out now. And we wrote six songs in two days.

And I didn't think any of the songs were for me. I thought we were writing them for Dan. One of the songs was a song "Boundless Love." And Dan didn't record it when he went in to do his solo project. So I looked at it when I was trying to gather songs up for "The Tree Of Forgiveness." And I liked the song except I didn't think there was enough of me in it, like, John Prine in it. So I called up Dan and said, I'm going to John Prine this song up. And he said, what do you mean?

And I said, well, instead of the word food I'm going to put frying pork chops in. And I said, and I got the whole thing - I'm going to replace the whole second verse with my old heart is like a washing machine; it bounces around till my soul comes clean. So Dan laughed. And that's what I did, is I just John Prined (ph) the song up. And it came out really pretty. And now I consider it kind of my song for my wife Fiona, "Boundless Love."

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. And, John Prine, it's been a great pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PRINE: Thank you, Terry.


PRINE: (Singing) I woke up this morning to a garbage truck. Looks like this old horseshoe's done run out of luck. If I came home, would you let me in, fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin? Surround me with your boundless love. Confound me with your boundless love. I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be, when you found me with your boundless love.

(Singing) Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine. It bounces around till my soul comes clean. And when I'm clean and hung out to dry, I'm going to make you laugh until you cry. Surround me with your boundless love. Confound me with your boundless love. I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be, when you found me with your boundless love.

GROSS: John Prine's new album is called "The Tree Of Forgiveness." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel about urban Indians called "There There" by Native American writer Tommy Orange. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. A debut novel with an odd title has become one of the first breakout literary novels of the summer. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "There There."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Here's the thing about "There There," the debut novel by Native American author Tommy Orange. Even if the rest of its story were just so-so - and it's much more than that - the novel's prologue would make this book worth reading. In that 10-page prologue, Orange wittily and witheringly riffs on some 500 years of native peoples' history, a history of genocide and dislocation presented mostly through the image of heads.

Orange begins with a description of the Indian head test pattern which closed out America's television programming every night during the age of black-and-white TV. He then catapults backwards to 1621, the first Thanksgiving, and then bebops through a litany of Indian massacres in American history. Here's part of that prologue where Orange momentarily catches his breath and sums up.

(Reading) Our heads are on flags, jerseys and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people - which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.

In his prologue and in other inspired digressions throughout this novel, Orange's writing reminds me of the late great Tom Wolfe, another exuberant, socially conscious prose poet who loved to get word drunk but never got sloppy. "There There" is distinguished not only by Orange's crackling style but by its unusual subject. This is a novel about urban Indians - about, as he says, native peoples who know the sound of the freeway better than they do rivers, the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete better than they do the smell of cedar or sage. Orange's story takes place in Oakland, Calif. And his title comes from the famous pronouncement about rootlessness that Gertrude Stein made when, as an adult, she revisited Oakland, her childhood home. Stein said, there is no there there. Tommy Orange knows the feeling and the terrain. He also grew up in Oakland and is a member enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. But in "There There," Orange wanted to do something more than fictionalize his own experience.

Instead, his novel is composed of the stories of a bunch of native and mixed-race characters, all of them eventually converging in a climactic scene at a big powwow in the Oakland Coliseum. We readers know from the outset that something terrible will happen at that powwow the minute we meet our first character, a 21-year-old named Tony Loneman who talks about struggles with the Drome, meaning fetal alcohol syndrome. Tony is in with a bunch of lowlifes who've gotten a hold of 3-D plastic guns they're planning to use in a robbery at the powwow.

Other, more benign characters are drawn to the powwow for the same reasons that Americans of every race and ethnicity now log on to sites like - they're searching for identity. That urge is especially strong in characters whose connections to their native heritage is more vexed, like a young woman named Blue, who was adopted at birth by a white couple. She's what Orange calls in his prologue an apple, meaning red on the outside and white on the inside.

The risk with this kind of chorus-line plot structure is that it can feel mechanical, and Orange's novel sometimes does when it stalls in the company of the weaker characters here. But other voices and stories are so alive they more than compensate. Chief among the standouts is a woman named Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, whose background is as singular as her name. As children, Opal and her older sister spent time with their mother on Alcatraz when that island was occupied by Native American activists in 1969. In present time, Opal is now a postal worker caring for her sister's three grandsons.

All of them find themselves at that fateful powwow, which turns out to be as chaotic and idealistic as the Alcatraz occupation and much more violent. In a satiric aside, Orange says that one thing that unites the diverse powwow participants is the type of bumper stickers they've slapped on their cars. They all sport Indian pride messages, like my other vehicle is a war pony and fighting terrorism since 1492. Like those bumper stickers, "There There" is pithy and pointed. With a literary authority rare in a debut novel, it places Native American voices front and center before readers' eyes.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "There There" by Tommy Orange. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be David Sanger, author of "The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage And Fear In The Cyber Age." He writes about the Russian hacking of the DNC, digital sabotage from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea and how the U.S. is trying to defend itself. Sanger is a national security correspondent for The New York Times. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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