Country History X: John Prine & the Perfect Country & Western Song

Welcome to Episode #2 of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time.

Many know the “perfect Country & Western song” is “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” performed by David Allan Coe, and written by Steve Goodman. Or at least, that’s how David Allan Coe and Steve Goodman presented it. But what many don’t know is that John Prine was a co-writer of the song. This is the story of why his name was left off the iconic song, and how it was written. 

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes



Editor’s notes:

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A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Transcript


We all know what the perfect country & western song is, because David Allan Coe told us. He also told us why it was the perfect country & western song, and who wrote it. That would be the great Steve Goodman, and the song of course is “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” There’s no reason to debate what the perfect country & western song is. Well, you can, and maybe you will. But you’ll be wrong. At least according to David Allan Coe, and Steve Goodman.

But there was a silent partner in “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” perhaps appropriate for a song that at its heart is all about wagging a middle finger at the country music industry, and the lack of recognition for deserving artists and songwriters … along with of course being about mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk. Yes, there’s actually a message to “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” and a pretty interesting story behind it as well. This is the tale of don don don John Prine, Steve Goodman, a jukebox, and the perfect country & western song.

John Prine will be remembered for the many songs he wrote that made a mark on American music across the folk, country and rock realm—some where it was Prine himself who turned in the definitive version, and some where it was renditions of his songs from others that went on to appear on major charts and get played on the radio. But it’s a song that he refused credit for that may be one of his most lasting contributions. After all, how many other songs are people comfortable with labeling as “perfect”?

John Prine’s parents were from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, but Prine himself grew up in the Chicago area, attending Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music beginning at the age of 14. Prine’s family would visit relatives in Kentucky every summer, so John soon became steeped in both folk and country influences at a formidable age. It took some time for John Prine to transition to a full-time music performer and songwriter. He joined the Army for a bit and was stationed in Germany, where he would swap Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan songs with a friend of his who would play Lefty Frizzell songs until 3 in the morning. When Prine returned to the States he became a mailman, writing songs in his head while on his route. Sometimes he would get the songs and the mail mixed up, and deliver letters to the wrong houses, and have to go back, knock on doors, and ask for mail back to deliver it to the right house.

Prine may have never made it in music professionally though. Reluctant to perform his own songs, he instead just wrote songs, and spectated his fellow students from the Old Town School of Folk, including when they would perform at a local bar called The Fifth Peg, which was located across the road from the Old Town folk school on Armitage Avenue, and provided a stage once a week to students. “This is awful,” Prine mumbled one evening about one of his fellow folk understudies. The other students sitting around Prine chimed in, “Well, then you get up and try.” So Prine did, taking the stage to perform his song “Sam Stone” about a Vietnam Veteran who dies from a drug overdose.

Originally titled “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” the song is considered by many to be one of the saddest songs in popular music history. When John Prine finished, there was complete silence in the room. Prine though he’d bombed for sure, and had shown his ass after his smart aleck remark. But the silence was from the room being struck with awe, and eventually the audience broke into loud applause. John Prine was a natural.

Eventually The Fifth Peg offered Prine his own regular slot on the stage. Soon he was playing at the bar every Friday and Saturday night to a packed crowd. One night in October of 1970, famous film critic Roger Ebert was watching a movie nearby and was sent on edge by the bad screenplay and the popcorn being too salty. In a huff, Ebert left the theater and sauntered down the street, ending up in The Fifth Peg looking for a beer, and ultimately found himself in the audience of John Prine. Just like Prine’s fellow students previously, Roger Ebert was left awe stricken, so much so that he turned in a glowing review to the Chicago Sun-Times instead of the review of the movie he’d been assigned to.

Roger Ebert coined Prine “The Singing Mailman,” and said about Prine, quote, He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you. Prine’s lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words. Prine can be funny, too, and about half his songs are,Roger Ebert said. The review was on of John Prine’s first big breaks.

Soon, John Prine was one of the biggest names in the Chicago folk scene beside other notable performers, including Steve Goodman, who became both a mentor and a best friend to Prine. It was Steve Goodman that convinced Kris Kristofferson that he needed to see this John Prine guy, after Steve opened a Chicago show for Kristofferson. Kris recalled later, quote, “By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene,” unquote. Kristofferson then drafted Prine to open for him in New York City along with Steve Goodman at a club called The Bitter End. This was in 1971, and in the crowd that night in New York was Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler signed John Prine the very next day.

On that same trip, Kris Kristofferson introduced Steve Goodman to performer Paul Anka, which resulted in Steve Goodman being signed to the New York-based label Buddha Records. John Prine later recalled, quote, “We hit the Big Apple for the first time, and within 24 hours we had recording contracts, and we went home with money in our pockets. We were returning heroes for the folk scene in Chicago, like actually two kids could go to New York for 24 hours and get a record contract,” unquote.

Also raised in the Chicago area, Steve Goodman graduated from Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1965, and was a classmate of Hillary Clinton. Goodman floated in and out of college for a couple of years after high school, spent a few months in 1967 living in the folk music mecca of Greenwich Village, returned to Chicago, and became a hero of folk music in the city. In subsequent years, Steve Goodman would receive national recognition through a host of different artists who recorded his train song “The City of New Orleans.” Arlo Guthrie was the first to take a crack at it, then Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Lynn Anderson, along with a host of others. Willie Nelson recorded “The City of New Orleans” as well, and turned the song into a #1 in 1985. It also earned the 1985 Grammy for Best Country Song. Goodman wasn’t around to enjoy it though. He’d died the year before.

First diagnosed with Leukemia in the late 60’s, Steve Goodman fought the disease and its side effect of severe fatigue throughout his career before eventually succumbing to it. But it’s not the song “The City of New Orleans” that’s synonymous with Steve Goodman for many. In Chicago, it’s his Chicago Cubs anthem “Go Cubs Go.” Most everywhere else, it’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” thanks to country artist David Allan Coe and his infamous name drop.

Most people gloss over the fact that the song in large part is a kiss off to the music industry by a struggling artist trying to make a name for himself. This was the exact spot Steve Goodman was in during 1971—and John Prine for that matter—even if they both had received recent bouts of fortune signing record deals. Those opportunities only came after years of struggling to make their mark, and neither had yet to quote/unquote “make it” (so to speak) on the national map. But that was all about to change.

After their first successful trip to New York together, John Prine and Steve Goodman returned the the Big Apple about two weeks later to finalize the paperwork on their new recording contracts. It happened to be that Paul Anka—who had the same manager—was also scheduled to perform that evening at New York’s prestigious Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue. One of the perks of performing at the Waldorf was they gave you the best suite at the hotel as a dressing room. But since Paul Anka lived in New York at the time, he didn’t need the accommodations. So Paul Anka offered up the suite to John Prine and Steve Goodman so they could use it as a place to write while in town if they wanted. The two young and hungry folk artists weren’t fools. They took Paul Anka up on the opportunity.

Both John and Steve headed up to the suite to check it out, and then Prine decided he wanted to go out for a while, heading down to Greenwich Village, hitting up a couple of clubs, finding himself in a jazz bar, and ending up back at the Waldorf Astoria suite at about 1 in the morning. There he finds Goodman beneath a lamp, intently writing on a song. Prine peers over Steve Goodman’s shoulder, and reads the lines, “It was all that I could do to keep from crying. Sometimes it seems to useless to remain.”

Clearly, the song Steve Goodman was writing was of a serious subject matter. But John Prine wasn’t in that kind of mood, so he jumped up on the palatial Waldorf Astoria master suite bed, and started prancing around, playing an imaginary fiddle tucked under his chin. Prine laugh’s, quote, “Oh Stevie, you’re writing a real weeper!” Prine continued to rib Goodman, who soon was laughing himself.

Then they decided to make themselves a drink, or a few of them from the stocked bar provided in the Paul Anka suite. Instead of selecting one of the fine liquors provided exclusively by the Waldorf, they put a stopper in the bar sink, and poured the contents of a bunch of the bottles together, then added some ice cubes and 7up to make a cocktail. Soon the two young songwriters were sauced, and Steve Goodman’s weeper became what we know today as “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.”

That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the perfect country & western song was written in the premier suite of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City (New York City ?!?), and was inspired by drams of the finest liquor scooped out of a sink. The song was reportedly written on Waldorf Astoria stationary, though later embellishments of the story had the lyrics being written in Sharpie on the suite’s walls. That’s probably not true.

But why was John Prine’s name never assigned to the song by Steve Goodman, David Allan Coe, or anyone else? This was actually at John’s behest, and his explanation about why has been a little bit varied over the years. But long story short, Prine thought the song was silly, and didn’t want to be associated with it, at least at the start. In Prine’s 2016 picture and lyric book called Beyond Words, he says quote, “I wouldn’t put my name on it ’cause I thought it sucked. Then it went to number one! That’s how I found out what a number one song is.”

An official missive from John Prine in early 2017 further clarified that Prine quote, “…didn’t want offend the country community, so he refused a writer’s credit,” which speaks to the character of Prine, and his respect for the country music community that he never quite fit in perfectly as more of a folk-oriented songwriter, but still found plenty of positive reception from throughout his career.

Just to clarify, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” never actually went to #1 on any chart. It’s best performance was #8 on the country charts in 1975 via David Allan Coe, though for certain, the song’s legacy far surpasses most garden variety Top 10 hits. Steve Goodman first recorded the song and released it on his 1971 self-titled debut album for Buddha Records. The Steve Goodman version is slightly different, didn’t include the list of country-isms at the end, and seemed to be just as much about feeling unappreciated by a former lover as it was a kiss off to the music industry.

But when David Allan Coe got a hold of the song in 1975, he was the perfect quote/unquote “Outlaw” to pick it up and run with it. In the song, Coe not only name drops Steve Goodman in the song’s most famous portion that lists off country music cliche’s, he also name drops Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard. A lot of folks over the years have glossed over the fact that David Allan Coe is actually trying to impersonate these three singers when he sings the respective lines naming these artists.

Tracking the ascent of David Allan Coe himself is something that probably deserves its own dedicated deep dive, which would also require a lot of delicate and dedicated separation of fact from fiction since Coe’s own accounts of his life come with quite a bit of, well, embellishment. But he was born in Akron, Ohio, he did spend much of his youth and young adult life in and out of reform schools and prison as he claims. And after getting out of prison for good in 1967, David Allan Coe moved to Nashville to pursue his country music career.

He was homeless when he first moved to town, and lived in the back of a red Cadillac hearse that he regularly parked in front of the Ryman Auditorium—aka the “Mother Church of Country Music” where the Grand Ole Opry held court. On the back of the hearse was crudely decaled quote, “David Allan Coe, Support the Grand Ole Opry.”

As the crowds came and went from the Mother Church, there was Coe busking in front of the famed venue. It was his way of getting the attention of the industry that locked out many outsiders like him, and it worked. Plantation Records signed him to their record label. Coe’s first two albums—Penitentiary Blues and Requiem for a Harlequin—were through Plantation. But it was his work as a songwriter that really got David Allan Coe his first mainstream recognition. Writing Tanya Tucker’s #1 hit “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)” in 1973 put Coe on the radar of Music Row, and by the next year he was signed with Columbia Records.

David Allan Coe’s first record with Columbia was called The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, and was named after a persona David Allan Coe crafted from a confluence of a couple of things. The first was the gifting of an entire wardrobe of Rhinestone suits by country star Mel Tillis. Coe was on Music Row one day visiting with Mel in his office, when the infamous stutterer told Coe he had no use for his Rhinestone suits anymore, and Coe could have them all. Short of stage clothing, and always up for being the center of attention, Coe started wearing Rhinestone suits everywhere.

He also started wearing a mask due to an anecdote his father had once told him when he was younger about The Lone Ranger. The reason The Lone Ranger wore a mask is so when he went into town, he could take it off and not be recognized. If you wanted to be famous, you also wouldn’t want to be harassed, so this was a way to hide your true identity. And so, The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy was born.

But far from the Outlaw persona David Allan Coe would perfect in the future, his music had a decidedly more folk attitude at the start. On his debut record for Columbia, Coe covered Mickey Newbury’s song “The 33rd of August,” Guy Clark’s song “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” and later renditions of the record included “Please Come to Boston” by David Loggins. Coe’s second record Once Upon A Rhyme was also a mostly sedate, folk-inspired record, and just like the first one, was produced by one of the architects of the Countrypolitan Sound, Billy Sherrill.

Lush and genteel, it included Coe’s own version of “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” and what might be the most underrated song of his career, the sweet and harmonious “Jody Like a Melody.” Similar to another future Outlaw in Waylon Jennings, the first incarnation of David Allan Coe was as a folk country artist, mostly crafted in the image of Music Row.

David Allan Coe’s first proper radio single was from the Once Upon A Rhyme album, and was called “Would You Be My Lady.” It absolutely bombed, stalling at an embarrassing #91 on the country charts. But the final song on the album, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” became a hit. It gave David Allan Coe his name. It made his career as a performer. All the other David Allan Coe songs and antics that may come to mind whenever you hear his name, none of it may have ever been entered into the public record if it wasn’t for this song starting off his performing career.

The song’s success also arguably pushed David Allan Coe towards a more Outlaw style, and more expressive songs. Steve Goodman was a folk singer who’d written a country song. David Allan Coe was a country singer who’d turned it into an Outlaw song. Coe’s next single was “Longhaired Redneck,” which also fared well as a single when he released it in 1976. David Allan Coe had found his place among the rising Outlaws in country music.

Steve Goodman, John Prine, and the Jukebox

But there was one little outstanding detail with “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” As the royalty checks for the song started showing up in Steve Goodman’s mailbox and didn’t stop, and Goodman also received new interest in his own career and music thanks to the David Allan Coe name drop in the song, Goodman felt guilty for leaving John Prine out of the cut. Of course, that was John Prine’s call, so he only had himself to blame. But nonetheless, Steve Goodman wanted to make good with his close friend from Chicago. So in lieu of giving Prine cash, Steve Goodman purchased a mint condition 1942 Wurlitzer jukebox for John Prine as payment.

Eventually the Wurlitzer would end up in the corner of John Prine’s office in Nashville, which was adjacent to the famous recording studio called The Butcher Shoppe, where a new generation of country music performers would launch their careers, namely Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson, who made the last recording in the space before it was bulldozed when he cut a bluegrass record there.

Sturgill Simpson also shared the office space with John Prine. Though Prine never received any royalties for “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” he wasn’t exactly hard up for cash near the end of his life. When John Prine died on April 7th, 2020 due to COVID-19, the folk singer left a Porsche 911 to Sturgill Simpson, who John had become close to later in life. Prine couldn’t even get into the car, and neither could his wife Fiona, but it was on Prine’s bucket list to own a Porsche, so he bought it.

As for the Wurlitzer jukebox used as payment for “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”? it now resides at the home of John Prine with his widow Fiona, stocked with 78 records. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s Porsche 911, it’s worth a lot more with the story that comes with it. After all, it’s the story of the perfect country & western song.


Sources

Chicago Tribune: “John Prine Recalls His Chicago Folk Roots”

Chicago Sun-Times: “John Prine’s First Review”

WNEW-FM: Interview from 1987

John Prine: Beyond Words

Saving Country Music: “John Prine Had a Porsche 911, and Left It to Sturgill Simpson”

Jody Whelan, Oh Boy Records

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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