In 2000, Prine covered his own songs on "Souvenirs"; it had been 5 years since "Lost Dogs," the last full album of Prine originals. When Prine finally began working on new songs, he found the going a little choppier than his previous writing sessions.
"Man, after I had the first three songs wrote, it seemed like an eternity before four, five and six came along," says Prine with a laugh. "I've got kids, they're 9 and 10 now, but when I did "(Lost Dogs"), that's when they were born. I stayed on the road for almost two years with 'Lost Dogs,' and by the time I got time to be around them regularly, I got so used to it that the calendar and the clock went out the window."
Since starting Oh Boy in the early '80s, Prine has not had to adhere to the industry's cyclical template of album/tour/repeat and enjoyed the luxury of knowing his fan base will turn out for shows whether he has new music or not.
"I'm the only one who put pressure on to put a record out," says Prine. "Then when you do put a record out, people can't wait to say, 'When's the next one?' Anyway, I finally got enough songs that I felt real comfortable with - I sang them in concert plenty - and this is the first time I produced myself. So I'm real happy with the way the record turned out, as long as it did take."
Part of "Fair & Square's" delay is a matter of Prine's recently expanded family obligations, which have necessarily altered his songwriting process.
"I'd rather wait for total inspiration," says Prine with a laugh. "I would rather be driving down the street and go, 'Man I got a song,' and stop the car and write it down because I know those are the best ones. And I used to do those every couple of months, knock one out like that...In order to write, I've got to sit down and make a time for it and say that's what I'm going to do. The odd song will come along where you can't resist writing it, but if I waited for 10 of those, I might be 85 before the next album."
For Prine, having children was one of the most unexpected and fulfilling experiences of his life. He credits his wife and sons with offering him a perspective on life that he might never have known otherwise.
"I had no idea what having kids would do. Nobody could have told me what it would do for me," says Prine. "I've never been this grounded. I like to strive for being grounded and to set up scenes that are in a room, and there's an ashtray and a chair, and there's the person, the character. But that isn't how all life looks to me because life has looked really strange to me. The kids have really grounded me, and I feel like a normal person. I actually get up in the morning, and I feel tired at night."
Between life and Prine's slower than normal writing pace, it took awhile to amass the material for "Fair & Square."
This album finds Prine working with more collaborators than he's ever worked with on a single album, including Pat McLaughlin, Keith Sykes, Roger Cook and Donnie Fritts; he also included covers of A.P. Carter's "Bear Creek Blues" and Red Foley's "Clay Pigeons."
Once he'd road-tested most of it and was ready to hit the studio, Prine decided he'd have a crack at producing himself."On 'In Spite of Ourselves,' I gave myself a co-producer credit with Jim Rooney," says Prine. "But Jim made everything so easy it just seemed like I helped. It wasn't until I produced myself that I found out how hard it is."
To that end, Prine enlisted the services of Gary Paczosa, who he had met in Ireland when he was touring with Iris DeMent. Prine had been impressed by Paczosa's work with Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek, and when Paczosa inquired about the possibility of working together sometime, Prine agreed and then contacted him at the outset of "Fair & Square."
"Gary just took over with the sound," says Prine. "He would take everything and say, 'Do you like this? Do you like what you're doing? Okay, now let me work on it.' Man, he would get sounds out of my acoustic guitar that would add $10,000 to the price of it."
The sessions were further complicated by the fact that Prine was still finishing material for the album.
"I had to jump back and forth between being the writer and artist and producer," says Prine. "And the record company needing the record about three years ago. There's always different hats to wear."
In the end, "Fair & Square" is simply another great John Prine album, filled with inescapable truths, inscrutable wisdom and goofball humor. These days, Prine's songs are less character driven and more centered on personal-yet-universal observations, but they still bear the distinct signature of John Prine's voice and viewpoint and soul.
And, oddly enough, after three and a half decades of doing this very thing for a living, Prine still has very little insight into the mechanics of how it works for him.
"If I did know where I got the inspiration from, believe me, I'd move there. I'd buy a house there," says Prine, laughing. "I probably know less than I thought I knew 30 years ago. There's a whole lot I don't know about the creative process."
"When I get around to writing and it's no effort whatsoever, which it usually isn't once you get into it, I've learned to not stop halfway or three-quarters of the way through something and say you'll pick it up tomorrow."
"There's nothing harder than picking that up later; you don't know how you got into it. It's like a little puzzle, and you have to retrace to see where the beginning of the puzzle is. And it's very difficult to get into that head to write that third verse or that bridge for something you started six months earlier. It's easier when you co-write because I think most people come from a craftsmanship sort of way of doing it, whereas when I write alone, I have no rules. I just go for it or I don't. I go for a hot dog, or I go for a song."
Photo by John Chiasson