Album Reviews: John Prine, Tom Rush, Don Gibson, and More

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John Prine Returns with a Gem

John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness is his first collection of fresh material since 2005’s Grammy-winning Fair and Square. That means fans have endured a 13-year wait, but it was worth every minute, because the new album is a gem.

It’s hard to put your finger on just how Prine works his magic. Though he certainly knows how to turn a phrase, there are few fancy metaphors in his lyrics; his folksy vocals, which seem effortless, have more power than you might expect from such an understated, gravelly voiced singer; his melodies and instrumentation are simple and straightforward; and Nashville producer Dave Cobb keeps studio embellishments to a minimum, appearing to focus largely on just letting Prine be Prine.

Perhaps part of the secret behind the artist’s appeal is contained in his recent answer to Rolling Stone’s Patrick Doyle, who asked Prine what advice he’d give a young songwriter: “Try to please yourself,” he replied, “and don't think about commercial stuff. I think if you write from your own gut, you'll come up with something interesting, whereas if you sit around guessing what people want, you end up with the same kind of schlock that everybody else has got.”

The Tree of Forgiveness is anything but that. Exhibit A in this regard is “Summer’s End,” whose subtle lyric describes a variety of life’s everyday details—swimming suits drying on a line, the shadows on a ceiling, an open car window—while handing you enough clues about a fractured relationship to make you conjure up two broken hearts. It’s a lyric that I can’t imagine coming from anyone but Prine.

“Summer’s End” is one of five songs here that he cowrote with Nashville singer/songwriter Pat McLaughlin, and most of the other tracks were also created with collaborators, including Keith Sykes, former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, and even producer Phil Spector. (I’m guessing the track with Spector germinated back around 1978, when Prine did some writing with the now-imprisoned producer.) Cowriters notwithstanding, though, everything sounds like pure Prine.

His famous quirkiness enlivens many of the songs, including “The Lonesome Friends of Science” and the lilting “Boundless Love,” which begins: “I woke up this morning to a garbage truck / Looks like this old horseshoe’s done run out of luck / If I came home would you let me in / Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sins?” Then there’s the largely spoken “When I Get to Heaven,” in which Prine—who has twice battled cancer—explains his plans for the afterlife. Among them: smoking a cigarette that’s nine miles long, starting a rock and roll band, and opening a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness, to which he says he “might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics.” 

Call me what you want, John; just put me on the guest list. 

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Tom Rush Shines on New CD

Tom Rush will probably be known forever primarily as a guy with a knack for picking a good song. That’s largely because he hit the jackpot in that regard on one of his earliest albums, 1968’s The Circle Game, which includes material from the then-obscure James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. He certainly deserves credit for recognizing the merit in their compositions, but he has also proven himself over the years to be a fine performer and at times quite a songwriter himself. The Circle Game, for example, features his own oft-covered “No Regrets,” one of the best breakup songs ever.

Still, material from other writers dominates all of his albums—except for this new one. Voices does make room for Rush’s arrangements of two traditional numbers (“Elder Green” and “Corina, Corina”) but the other 10 tracks are originals. “I seem to have written, for some inexplicable reason, more songs in the past couple of years than in the previous couple of decades,” comments the now 77-year-old singer in the liner notes.

The best news is that he’s composing not only frequently but well indeed. Rush told me in an email that he considers Voices “my best work (so far),” and I’m inclined to agree. There are wise and touching love songs (“Far Away,” “Life Is Fine”) and poetic meditations (the title cut) as well as a number about the singer’s guitar (“My Best Girl”). There’s also just enough silliness to keep you smiling, such as on the fiddle-spiced “Heaven Knows (But It Ain’t Tellin’)” and “If I Never Get Back to Hackensack,” a song inspired by a bad gig that mentions more Garden State towns than any number since Steve Forbert’s “Strange Names (North New Jersey’s Got ’Em).” Throughout, Rush is backed by a fine combo, and his vocals are just as rich and compelling as they were on the best of his earlier albums.

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An Anthology of Don Gibson’s 1970s Work

In his prime, Don Gibson was a first-rate songwriter—good enough that Roy Orbison once devoted an entire album to his compositions. He wrote “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” within a few hours of each other, scoring a Top 10 pop hit in 1958 with his own performance of the former and giving Ray Charles one of his biggest and most memorable hits four years later with the latter. But Gibson was never much of a vocalist: “Oh Lonesome Me” benefits less from his baritone than from a catchy melody and some snappy guitar work. As for “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Gibson’s own version is pleasant enough but it took Charles to deliver the lyric’s emotional punch.

Perhaps this partly explains why Gibson had stopped having pop hits by the time he moved to the Hickory label in 1970; but he did continue to make a mark in the country field, most notably with the chart-topping “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” and the Top 10 “Country Green,” “Touch the Morning,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Bring Back Your Love to Me,” all of which are among the 25 remastered tracks on The Best of the Hickory Years, 1970-1978.

Everything on the set—which features songs by writers like Hank Williams, Bobby Bland, Mickey Newbury, and Joe South alongside a dozen Gibson originals—is professionally crafted; but the album is nevertheless a reminder of his limitations as a performer. His vocals are workmanlike but prosaic, and the music is about as mainstream and uninventive as anything that ever issued from Nashville. By all means seek out the most noteworthy covers of Gibson’s best work, but I’d suggest you pass this anthology by.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Ghost Town Blues Band, Backstage Pass. Grab a beer and get ready to party, because this 67-minute set—recorded live at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis—is a blast from first track to last. Vocalist/guitarist Matt Isbell leads the Ghost Town Blues Band, a septet that includes another guitarist, a trombonist, a saxophonist, a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboard player. Their Backstage Pass opens with a deft cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” that segues into bits of “Norwegian Wood” and somehow shifts gears from that into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and then back to “Norwegian Wood.” The clear message: expect the unexpected. Isbell and company don’t disappoint in a set that also includes a 16-minute reading of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” and the group’s own “Big Shirley,” a boogie-woogie tour de force that finds the band again quoting Led Zeppelin (“Rock and Roll”). By the time you get to the last track—the high-octane “I Need More Love,” a guitar-work showcase that incorporates a snippet from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”—you’ll be fully hooked.

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Peter Rowan, Carter Stanley’s Eyes. Backed by a consummate outfit that features banjo, fiddle, and mandolins, bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan delivers a traditional bluegrass set that does justice to compositions by legends like Bill Monroe, A.P. Carter, Charles & Ira Louvin, Ralph and Carter Stanley, and Lead Belly. Just as affecting are such originals as “The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes,” in which Rowan recounts a time—apparently in the early 1960s—when he drove up a mountain with Monroe to meet the legendary Stanley Brothers lead singer. Monroe introduced Rowan to Stanley, who asked him whether he was going to stick with bluegrass. “I said, ‘Yes, sir,’” Rowan recalls in a spoken portion of the song. “And Carter looked at Bill Monroe, and said, ‘Well, all right.’” All right, indeed; like virtually everything Rowan has done since, this latest album is terrific.

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The Price Sisters, A Heart Never Knows. Speaking of traditional bluegrass, you’ll find more of it on this likable first full-length album from 23-year-old twin sisters Lauren and Leanna Price, both of whom sing lead and harmony vocals. Lauren plays mandolin, Leanna plays fiddles, and backup includes banjo, guitar, and bass. The program mixes contemporary material with obscure but noteworthy compositions from bluegrass greats like A.P. Carter (“You’ve Been a Friend to Me” and “Dark and Stormy Weather”), the Delmore Brothers (“Singing My Troubles Away”), and Bill Monroe (“The Lee Wedding Blues”). It's good to know that a new generation is helping to keep music like this alive.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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