Unfair Squares

After 30 years, you'd think that fans of John Prine would have gotten the hint. After all, this is the guy who wrote 1971's Vietnam war protest "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," in which St. Peter tells the deceased narrator that Heaven is crowded with casualties "from your dirty little war." And they must've heard "Sam Stone," a grand weeper that describes a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran who returns from the battlefront to his loving family only to fall into a morphine addiction, with its haunting line, "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes."

In short, the Illinois songwriting legend isn't shy about stirring up wartime emotions. So how come longtime fans are booing Prine in concert and returning copies of his latest album, Fair & Square, over a casual mention of George W. Bush in "Some Humans Ain't Human"?

"It was kind of unexpected," Prine says. "Not that I thought I was preaching to the converted--and not that it's preaching, I'm just stating an everyday fact. But the climate has really changed since 'Sam Stone' came out. You don't quite know who you're talking to. You might be talking to someone and everything's agreeable: You like the same music, and you think they probably think the same way as you. But then you find out they don't."

Prine says the Bush putdown isn't even the point of the song, part of his follow-up to the Grammy-nominated In Spite of Ourselves and his first album of all-new material since 1995's Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. A spoken part observes: "Have you ever noticed when you're feeling really good/There's always a pigeon that'll come shit on your hood/Or you're feeling your freedom and the world's off your back/Some cowboy from Texas starts his own war in Iraq."

Prine would understand if these were unfamiliar audiences seeing him open for another act or as part of a festival, but these newly disgruntled fans claim to have been listening for 30 years.

"I can't figure out what they were listening to before," Prine says. "They had to have heard 'Sam Stone' and 'Flag Decal.' And it's not that big of a protest song. I just wanted to use that as an example. To me, George W. Bush and his policies are about the same as a pigeon shitting on your car."

But Prine isn't affected by the outcry. Not only will he play "Some Humans..." in Dallas, he plans to add some lines to the spoken interlude to further describe that cowboy from Texas. If anything, he hopes the result will crack the crowd up.

"I think people are more prone to listen to what you say if you use a humorous fashion to convey it," he said. "Nothing turns me off faster than a too-serious protest song, whether I agree with it or not."

Truly, few of Prine's songs could be categorized as simply protest songs. "Some Humans..." is the only cut from Fair & Square to take a shot at the war at all, which may surprise fans who've waited years for an album of new material. What's even more surprising is that the new songs don't address the monumental events in his life that caused the delay: finally becoming a father at age 49 and a cancer diagnosis the next year, shortly after his second son was born and while he was recording 1999's Ourselves.

Prine had noticed a lump on his neck while on tour but was told by his doctor not to worry about it. A year later, in 1997, the lump hadn't gone away. Prine underwent surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to remove the tumor and followed with six weeks of radiation treatment. He has been cancer-free since, but the brush with death forced him to take a year and a half off, which he now considers a blessing.

"My two children [Jack, 10, and Tommy, 9] came along, and they are the best thing that has ever happened," Prine says. "On top of that, I got to slow down and look at them."

While, unsurprisingly, Prine sees the world a new way since the ordeal, he hasn't seen the evidence of his new perspective in recent songs.

"It takes a while before something like that soaks in. Before it comes out in a song I write, it's got to be there for a while--like a stew. When you come to a full stop, it gives you a chance to look around."

Prine has adjusted his schedule so that he spends more time with his boys and wife, Fiona. Until the heavy part of his touring schedule for Fair & Square, he stayed home during the week, drove the boys to school and flew on weekends for shows. Prine says he's glad he didn't have children until so late in life, because the younger version of him wouldn't have spent as much time with the kids.

In fact, that extra time has clearly affected his sons' political outlooks. Prine was surprised one night to learn they had been featured on the Fox News Network while at a peace rally.

"Fox News interviewed Tommy, and he gave his name and said he would prefer if they didn't give his last name," Prine says with a laugh. "I don't know where he got that from. But he was great when they interviewed him. He said they had a 'lot of good fellows in Iraq, and they deserve our support by bringing them home.' I was proud of him. I don't think I got down to my first protest until I was 18 or 19."

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Jesse Hughey
Contact: Jesse Hughey