Book Review – John Prine’s “Beyond Words”
It’s not very common that you can preface a 70-year-old folk country songwriter that never had a big hit and the 14-year-olds in your family have probably never heard of as a “hot commodity,” but that’s exactly what John Prine feels like these days. Back in the day his career received a shot in the arm when folks like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash championed his music, and today’s country and roots heroes like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are still doing the same. Prine shares an office with Sturgill in Nashville, and Jason Isbell’s daughter knows Prine like family.
And that’s not to mention that John Prine’s latest record For Better, Or Worse lured Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, and many more into the studio to duet with him, and landed him his highest-charting album of his career. Even Zac Brown Band’s upcoming album Welcome Home will feature a rendition of John Prine’s “All The Best.” Who says music is a young man’s game?
Beyond Words is a book from John Prine, or more aptly put, a book about John Prine, but don’t expect to bury your nose into a loquacious biography that’s maybe bisected by a section for glossy photos, but otherwise is a months worth of evening reading staring you in the face. Beyond Words is more like a songbook combined with a photo anthology in big, coffee-table form, with full color pictures from Prine’s past luring you to flip through and dig deeper, while the words and chords to many of John Prine’s most cherished compositions call you to pick up a guitar and sing along.
True to its title, there’s not a lot of verbiage in Beyond Words. Even when Prine adds little notes about pictures or songs, it’s two or three sentences tops. Perhaps it would have been nice to have four or five pages of a simple biography of Prine to begin this work, or maybe a forward from one of his famous musician friends to introduce Prine to your house guests who may pick up the book and be unfamiliar. Not as if any of this is necessary in the age of the internet, but if someone was raffling through they’d at least have a frame of reference.
What Beyond Words does have is some amazing photos of Prine’s career, and not just of Prine himself, but many of the other famous music folks he hobnobbed with over his tenure. There’s Prine with folks like Kristofferson and “Cowboy” Jack Clement of course, but there’s also some unexpected photos, like the picture of John with a very young, and very cute Bonnie Raitt, and an ultra-suave and hungry Tom Waits all hanging out together at the Grand Ole Opry House in 1973 or ’74. It’s photos like these, along the family shots and scans of what would become iconic songs scribbled on pieces of paper that really help put into perspective just what a charmed and storied life Prine has lived.
Not to sound like a pitch man, but Beyond Words really would make a great gift for a John Prine fan. So many books you can buy for your bookworm friends, but it’s a crap shoot if they’ll ever get a chance to read them in today’s busy world. Beyond Words can get lots of use as the centerpiece for a guitar pull with friends, a way to settle bets about specific lyrics, or just to sit back and behold the life of Prine and all that entails.
We’ve lost so many of the greatest songwriters in country and folk over the last few years, most notably Guy Clark in 2016, that it not only makes you cherish these elder statesmen of songcraft that much more, it has shifted Prine into some very distinguished company as one of the greatest living songwriters around. All the more reason to celebrate his contributions, and Beyond Words helps you do so not by showering him with praise from peers, but through illustrating his life’s work, and letting it speak for itself.
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April 23, 2017 @ 9:36 pm
Fun little anecdote, tonight in knoxville Jason Isbell said he was on FaceTime with amanda and she is in Scotland with John Prine. They were in the dressing room and sturgill was hanging out with them. Apparently John got on the phone and told Jason that his wife had “run off with the mailman.”
April 23, 2017 @ 9:59 pm
That wouldn’t surprise me. A pretty boy like Isbell who plays soft, whiny Americana doesn’t stand a chance against a real man like Prine. Of course, I am kidding! Everyone knows Isbell is god! : )
April 24, 2017 @ 6:09 am
“I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know,” says John Prine. “But when I heard Southeastern, it just killed me. I loved it. I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them — every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do, and that’s what Jason does. I really haven’t heard anybody that different in probably 30 years.”
April 24, 2017 @ 8:30 am
Thanks for posting the Rolling Stone link–somehow I missed that one when it first ran, but it was a good read.
April 24, 2017 @ 8:43 am
I was at the Glasgow show last night. John played for two hours, sounded absolutely brilliant. Had his wife and Amanda shires on for duets too. Then he announces a special guest saying ‘I didn’t know until today that he was even in this part of the world…welcome Sturgill Simpson.’ Just about fell off my chair! They did a duet and then later everyone came back on and sang Lake Marie. Was a perfect evening overall!
April 25, 2017 @ 11:41 am
Was there too – fantastic gig, John Prine is in stellar form!!
April 23, 2017 @ 10:07 pm
As far as “songwriters of note” who we have recently lost go, I would add Merle to the list. Also, I don’t think it took him or Guy Clark passing away to put Prine at the top of the greatest living songwriters list. He was already #1 when both of them were alive.
April 24, 2017 @ 11:59 am
prine is fantastic, but tom t. hall is no. 1.
April 24, 2017 @ 2:28 pm
John Prine and Jackson Browne are still writing songs. They have never stopped writing songs. Not many song writers write new songs in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s. I cannot think of any others besides these two.
Barbara Lewis Bouregard
April 24, 2017 @ 4:43 pm
Met him and Kris, Rita, and Mike Utley in Kingston, NY back in the 70’s. Was invited into the dressing room for some cheer. I felt like I was surrounded by royalty. Still have most of his albums, and still enjoy him immensely. I remember waiting for those infrequent late night Nashville sessions on the tele to see him again. He deserves anything anyone can give him. He’s one talented crafter of words.
April 25, 2017 @ 1:22 pm
Received my copy of the book earlier this week. John is a treasure. The pictures are fantastic, including “The world’s largest shovel”.
Few words, but those there are show John’s charm.
May 2, 2020 @ 10:33 am
I must have the book. I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I don’t follow people like this, I make it a point not to. I’m ashamed to say this but I have only just become acquainted with John’s music and I am obsessed with it. I do remember a song of his a few years back that I picked up somewhere but didnt know until recently it was a Prine song and it floored me when I realized It was his. I for some reason didn’t know anything about him and suffered myself a great disservice. I now know alot of his songs and of his life in a matter of a few short weeks and am fully engaged. It would have been an honor to know him.
July 5, 2020 @ 10:05 am
John Prine, also Hiyt Axton, two of the greats ! Have seen both in concert, John twice, Hoyt only once. Both gone now, and the world is sadder for that. I want to get the book!
July 26, 2022 @ 7:53 am
I have been reading this book for a long time. For anyone who hasn’t done it yet, I highly recommend it! Now I read more what they ask in college. For example about photosynthesis, I use https://paperap.com/free-papers/photosynthesis/ for this. There is no time for books, although sometimes I really want to. It’s hard to be an adult, there is not enough time for everything, so it also flows like a river.
July 27, 2022 @ 7:07 am
Thank you! This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
September 25, 2022 @ 12:13 pm
The book is really worth it.