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- Posted on Nov 28th 2011 3:00PM by Cameron Matthews
Now, at age 65, Prine's newest release is an introspective look at his early career. After an interview with a local radio station, Prine recorded what would later become 'The Singing Mailman Delivers,' featuring nascent versions of 'Sam Stone' and 'Illegal Smile.' Spinner recently caught up with Prine about the folk legend's latest album and why he credits his wife with finding the decades-old tapes.
What were the first few songs that were conjured on your old mail route?
Lemme see. 'Sam Stone,' I wrote most of that on the mail route. The idea came from this radio we had sitting around where we used to sort the mail in the morning before you went on your route. And this radio sat way up on top of a rack, like with an extension cord, and it had gotten tripped over so many times that the radio had tape all around it. That coupled with [the fact that ] I used to read every magazine on my route before I delivered it. I saw in Time or Newsweek that a guy had written a novel called 'Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down' and I really liked the ring of that. I always liked the word radio and the word rodeo. I put rodeo in 'Angel From Montgomery.' I could go on singing radio and rodeo in songs forever.
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Anyway, I came up with the character Sam Stone, based on some of my friends that all got drafted at the same time. I got sent to Germany and more than a couple of them went to Vietnam. And they came home different guys, you know? I was always trying to explain this to myself. It wasn't just drugs. Some of them hadn't been in combat situations but evidently just to be there you were in a combat situation. You didn't know if you or a friend was gonna step on a land mine. It always got me that the army didn't, as much as time as they spent training you and put you in a mindset to go kill and survive in the jungle, they don't bring you back down from that. They throw you back out into society. I think that's a lot of the problems the GIs have after serving in a combat zone.
Were you always politically minded?
Actually, I never considered myself political at all. But during Vietnam, the country was so divided, especially among the young people. You almost couldn't help but get caught up in it. Because politics always kind of put me off, you know? [Laughs]
What do think 'Sam Stone' means today?
On one hand, I'm really, really surprised that I can even sing it without it becoming a piece of nostalgia. And on the other hand, I understand that those vets that the song appeals to and is about, they don't go away just because the war went away and a different war came up. They're here. Their lives haven't ever gone back to normal -- they had to invent a new normal over the years. And to people that weren't affected by that, I'm not sure. Maybe it's just a good ballad. I wrote that song, I think, in '68, on my mail route. If someone were to ask me then if I thought in 10 years I'd be singing that song, I would've bet against it.
What do you remember most about 1970 when you recorded these songs? Anything feel similar these days?
Everything changed for me after my first album came out, everything in my whole life. It was not a slow process for me to go from mailman to traveling around the country and becoming a popular musician at these clubs that I thought were just the greatest places in the world. It all happened within a year's time. I didn't even walk around my mail route dreaming of doing that. I didn't think it was really possible. I thought all people in show business were either from France or rich [laughs], anything you'd see on TV, you know? That wasn't me or my friends. It was a different world. And in some cases I was right -- after I met some of these so called celebrities, they were from another planet.
You were good friends with the late, great Steve Goodman. What did he teach you about songwriting or performing?
By the time I stood on stage I already had my foot firmly implanted in songwriting. Steve was the ultimate performer. Steve could take a handful of people off of a bus and entertain 'em. He would start with, "The red, red robin goes bop bop boppin' along" [laughs]. All I had were the songs I wrote, which at the time might have seemed like I was a protestor from the left. Steve just went out there and sang songs from every era. And he could play the guitar too. I still can't get above the third fret without a capo [laughs].
When you were on your mail route, did you ever write on anyone's mail when you came up with a lyric?
No [chuckles]. We had actual mail then. People actually got letters!
So is it true what they say about mailmen braving every type of weather?
Oh, yeah. Rain, sleet, snow or hail. And I've walked in all of them. Make sure you add dogs to that list, they're the worst of all.
How do you like dogs these days?
Um, not much better [laughs]. Once you're a mailman it's hard to get that scent off of ya'. One lady told me that her dog just didn't like anybody in uniform.
Can you tell us about the day you recorded 'The Singing Mailman Delivers'?
It was the only time that I was a real radio station before I actually had a recording contract. Studs Terkel invited me down to a morning interview show. I had been making a lot of noise on the north side of Chicago in the clubs. I guess Studs had heard of me and wanted to interview me. I was still a mailman and just working three nights a week in this one club. They had a popular folk show on Saturday nights -- this was the classical station -- and called it 'The Midnight Special.' It was pretty popular amongst the folk scene in Chicago. Ray Nostrand was the DJ on that and he was their engineer on the session when I went in to talk to Studs. I asked afterwards if I could just sing my songs one after another so I could have a good copy to send to the Library of Congress so I could copyright it. They let me and this is where the tape came from.
I only found this stuff because my wife made me, totally against all objections I had. It took me a month and a half to clean my garage out when I moved from our last house to this one. I had to sit there every day and go through boxes from three marriages. I just never bothered to unpack a lot of it, unless I had any appliances or clothes [laughs] Anything else my ex-wives boxed up for me I never unpacked. I had to sit there and go through each thing to see if it was worth saving. My wife had rented a dumpster for me and I sat there each day, cursing, going through each box. These tapes came out of having to clean the garage. My wife doesn't want to hear it from me when she has a chore for me.
What did you think when you heard the tapes again for the first time?
I was particularly surprised that they were in the quality that they are. I told my business partner Al, I said, "Geez, Al, what are you thinking?" and he said, "I think we could put this out tomorrow." He wasn't crazy about the quality of the live tracks, but the live one to me is personally more entertaining than just hearing one song after another. I said, "Why don't we put 'em out as a double thing and then sell them as one record?" I think it gives a more complete picture of that time period.
When you listen to the live part, do you remember who's there and what you're doing?
Oh, yeah! I always told people the reason I talked so much in between songs is because I'm basically nervous. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to sing a song where the character gets killed off in some awful fashion and then go right into 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.' I introduced it with these stories and some of them are pretty preposterous [laughs]. But I think I saved the good bits of these stories and they became the ones I still tell today.
You recently worked with Jim James of My Morning Jacket. What do you think about this generation's folk singers?
The natural way that they want to know about all kinds of good stuff that came before them. Most of them are all completely learned. They've just immersed themselves and applied it in a lot of cases. My Morning Jacket, for instance, I hear the Byrds, I hear old folk recordings, I hear Hendrix [laughs]. I went and saw those guys live, they totally blew me away. They really kill it.
Jimmy, he's been nothing but really nice. He's a big fan and he wanted to do stuff with me. We did Letterman this year. That was his idea. I hope they all stay like they are.