These types of pronouncements can border on the ridiculous, but for the sake of having a writing device, we’ll just make it anyway — John Prine is the most important artist to play the Cascade Theatre to date.
One immediate argument that could blow that statement out of the water is Merle Haggard. But we’ll take local acts off the table for now.
Lyle Lovett rivals any songwriter and has a brilliant band. Buddy Guy is on the Mount Rushmore of blues guitarists. John Hiatt’s an amazing songwriter. Artists like Bela Fleck and Bruce Hornsby are nothing short of sublime.
But in terms of folk or Americana music, Prine, who performs Monday night at 8 p.m., is a titan on so many levels.
The songs themselves make him an icon. His self-titled debut album alone contained enough important songs to make a career for anyone else with tunes such as "Angel From Montgomery," "Hello in There," "Sam Stone," "Paradise" and "Illegal Smile."
As a performer, his laid-back finger picking style perfectly supports his songs. His voice, strained from a battle with cancer in the 1990s, remains a gravelly jewel. His incredible wit makes the moments between songs nearly as special as the songs themselves.
That humor, continually interwoven through his lyrics, defines his music to a large degree. It makes you smile and chuckle to hear the lines. They’re fun to repeat or sing yourself or even read.
From "Illegal Smile": "A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won/And it was twelve o’clock before I realized that I was havin’ … no fun."
From "Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody": "There’s roosters laying chickens and chickens layin’ eggs/Farm machinery eating people’s arms and legs/I wasn’t hurtin’ nobody/I wasn’t hurtin’ no one."
Every Prine song seems to contain some kind of memorable line. Those lines combine to form portraits of universal truth about the human experience.
It’s such a subtle art, combining words with music to create something interesting. Prine has a master’s touch.
Bob Dylan may be the greatest songwriter of all time, but even he’s in awe of Prine. He appeared unannounced at one of Prine’s early club appearances, anonymously backing him on harmonica. Just this year, Dylan said this: "Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree."
From his debut through his last studio album (the brilliant Grammy-winning "Fair & Square"), Prine has set a huge high standard throughout his career.
A new tribute album, "Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine," features an assortment of modern artists (Old Crow Medicine Show, Conor Oberst, the Avett Brothers, Drive-By Truckers) paying homage to Prine’s songs. But you could have picked a group of artists from anywhere over the past four decades who would have been thrilled to contribute to such a project.
Monday night’s concert has enjoyed strong ticket sales. Some balcony seats remain, but the floor is mostly gone. Prine tickets are being sold at a pretty standard rate of $49.50.
The show also has an intriguing opener in Dan Reeder, an innovative songwriter who came to craft later in his life. Reeder makes the instruments he plays and fearlessly sings about topics that please him — watching the rain, chasing women, cowboys’ misconceptions about women. Reeder’s lyrics are the perfect antitheses to pop songs designed for the masses.
It’s easy to see why Reeder’s irreverent lyrics appeal to Prine.
Here’s a couple fun videos. First Prine in his kitchen several years back:
Here’s a video of Dan Reeder’s "Cowboy Song":