John Prine, a Jukebox, & The Perfect Country & Western Song

photo: c/o John Prine private collection

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 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 mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk.

John Prine will be remembered for the many songs 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 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”?

As fellow songwriters who emerged from the Chicago folk scene, John Prine and Steve Goodman were good buds, and at times, co-writers. That was the case when it came to “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” Though the best-known version of the song appeared on David Allan Coe’s 1975 album Once Upon a Rhyme and became his first Top 10 hit, Steve Goodman included a version of the song on his 1971 self-titled album as well, though the list at the end of country cliches was slightly different. But neither version included John Prine in the writing credits.

Steve Goodman and John Prine had their own beefs with the country music industry. Though eventually Goodman’s song “City of New Orleans” (also from his self-titled 1971 album) would become a big hit for Arlo Guthrie, and later a #1 in country thanks to Willie Nelson, at the time Steve was struggling to bust into the industry, similar to David Allan Coe in 1975. That’s the reason for the sardonic mood of the song.

“You Never Even Called Me By My Name” was written in a luxury suite at the Waldorf in New York City. As budding songwriters, neither John Prine nor Steve Goodman had any business being in a Waldorf suite, but they had just been signed by the same people who were managing Paul Anka at the time, and Paul was playing a show at the Waldorf in New York on the day Prine and Goodman happened to be in the city finalizing their contracts.

“They gave Paul this grand suite that everybody that plays there gets at the Waldorf Astoria as a dressing room,” Prine explained in a 1987 interview on WNEW-FM. “So Paul didn’t need it because he resided in New York City at the time. So he said, ‘Why don’t you and Stevie use it if you want to write or something?’ ”

Goodman retired to the suite, but Prine decided he wanted to go down to The Village for a while, hitting up a couple of bars and clubs, and returned to find Goodman working on a song.

“I look over his shoulder and he’s got two lines down: ‘Well, it was all that I could do to keep from crying. Sometimes it seems so useless to remain.’ And I felt kind of goofy so I got up and started jumping up and down on the bed and started playing an imaginary fiddle. I said ‘Steve, oh you’re right, a real weeper.’ I started getting on his case. So we started laughing. And since it was a dressing room for Paul Anka, they had a full bar set up. So me and Goodman took a bunch of different liquors and poured them in the sink with the plug in the sink, and we mixed a special cocktail punch … I said to Stevie, ‘We got to make this a funny song.’ ”

As funny as it was, a sober John Prine decided later that he did not want to assign his John Hancock to the composition. “I wouldn’t put my name on it ’cause I thought it sucked,” Prine remarked in his 2016 picture and lyric book, Beyond Words. “Then it went to number one! That’s how I found out what a number one song is.”

Well, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” didn’t quite make it to #1 (it officially hit #8 in country), but it did make Steve Goodman a healthy chunk of cash, leaving Goodman feeling guilty for not cutting Prine in. So in lieu of royalty payments, Goodman bought a top-of-the-line Wurlitzer jukebox for Prine.

An official post from John Prine in early 2017 further clarified that Prine “…didn’t want offend the country community, so he refused a writer’s credit,” speaking 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.

So when putting together lists of top songs from John Prine, or listening through them to remember his legacy, don’t forget “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” I mean, how could you? It’s perfect.

READ: John Prine Leaves Us With The Wisdom From Another World (RIP)

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