The stage backdrop for John Prine’s set Saturday night at the Bass Concert Hall was an old black-and-white photo of a general store. There’s a self-service gas pump in the bottom-righthand corner, and faded lettering on the storefront sign. A worn out front porch stoop that had clearly seen better days. Later, while introducing "Paradise," Prine revealed it was his father’s old store in Kentucky.
But throughout Prine’s set, it wasn’t hard to imagine that general store as the central meeting point for generations of Prine characters. There’s Sam Stone over on the porch there, right after he came home from "the conflict overseas." The protagonist from "Egg & Daughter Nite" is pumping gas on his way into town. Maybe the couple from "Hello In There" is inside the store, looking for groceries as much as they’re searching for human interaction.
At this point in his career, the characters in Prine’s songs still feel as fresh as they did decades ago.
The biggest strength of any songwriter is the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Prine figured out how to do that in 1971 and hasn’t stopped creating songs that force the listener to imagine what life might be like for another person.
During his show at Bass Concert Hall Saturday night, Prine transported the audience to that mythical general store through hits old and new, aided by Texas native Amanda Shires.
It was Prine’s second stop in Austin in the month of June; he held court at Waterloo Records for an interview with KUTX-FM’s Elizabeth McQueen on June 4 and then taped an episode of "Austin City Limits" the following night.
Backed by his usual band — multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist Dave Jacques and drummer Kenneth Blevins — Prine made a symphony out of minimalism, the sound perfectly captured in the Bass Concert Hall.
His voice is now permanently altered and deepened after a bout with oral cancer in 1996, and another bout with lung cancer in 2013. Hearing him now encourages different readings to his older songs. The "old trees just grow stronger" line in "Hello in There" wavers a bit on "stronger"; the narrator of "Sam Stone" sounds more world-weary and sorrowful.
His setlist Saturday night hit many of the same notes his taping did, with some of the same stories and jokes. And while his songs may be sad (and some of Shires’, too — she joked at the beginning of her set that "all the songs you’re gonna hear tonight are sad ones"), the stories are always funny, that prime Prine wit shining through in every bit of stage banter.
"This next song is about an argument, and if you’re in a relationship, you know — you don’t actually want to win the argument," he said introducing "No Ordinary Blue."
He told the stories behind "Lonesome Friends of Science" and "Egg & Daughter Nite" at his ACL taping, and repeated them Saturday night as well. He played all 10 songs from his new record, "The Tree of Forgiveness," and dipped back into some political commentary, too.
"I wrote this song as a protest song," he said while introducing "Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore," originally written about the Vietnam War. "And now, all these years later, it’s a MAGA protest song."
And speaking of stories, Shires peppered her set with tales from the road and her previous tour with Prine. Most memorable is her story of how she got audience members in Ireland to ceaselessly request "Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian" from Prine, only to have him turn the prank around on her and have her play the song twice in her set for the rest of the tour.
"So, don’t request that song tonight," she joked. "I was afraid he wouldn’t ask me back, but of course I got asked back, I’m Amanda Shires."
At first, Shires only played an ukulele for her set, which featured a stripped down version of new song "Break Out the Champagne." She joined Prine for five songs at the end of the show plus an encore, where her violin updated classics like "Sam Stone" and "Clocks and Spoons" (the latter of which she also performed during her ACL taping with husband Jason Isbell last year).
Together, both Shires and Prine embodied the folk tradition Saturday night. These two are storytellers, some of the best American music has at this moment. Whether it’s Shires regaling the audience with tales of Tiger Bill and his "Bulletproof" tiger claws or Prine singing of an "Angel From Montgomery," the words and the music go hand in hand to continue an oral storytelling tradition that’s been around for centuries.
At the end of the show, Prine joked that his father’s general store was torn down the day after that photo was taken. And while I’m sure that’s the truth, while the store may be gone, the stories and the memories of it that have been passed down will live on, just like the stories that were sung Saturday night.
Amanda Shires"When You Need a Train It Never Comes""Mineral Wells""Swimmer""Bulletproof""Harmless""Break Out the Champagne"
John Prine"Six O’Clock News""Knockin’ On Your Screen Door""Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)""Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore""Caravan of Fools""Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)""Grandpa Was a Carpenter""Hello In There""Boundless Love""Summer’s End""I Have Met My Love Today""Angel From Montgomery""Lonesome Friends of Science""Everything Is Cool""Donald & Lydia""Souvenirs""No Ordinary Blue""In Spite Of Ourselves" (with Amanda Shires)"Clocks & Spoons" (with Amanda Shires)"Sam Stone" (with Amanda Shires)"God Only Knows" (with Amanda Shires)"Lake Marie" (with Amanda Shires)
Encore"When I Get to Heaven" (with Amanda Shires)"Paradise" (with Amanda Shires and Fiona Prine)