When John Prine Nearly Lost His Voice, He Came Back Singing Duets

Apr 13, 2020

In the latter half of 1997, John Prine spent a string of Nashville afternoons with his friend and record producer Jim Rooney in a suite at Spence Manor, the funky tower hotel on Music Row with the guitar-shaped swimming pool. They were doing what passes for work in Music City, listening to and comparing thoughts about vintage country music duets: George Jones and Melba Montgomery, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. And older records still, with Kitty Wells and Red Foley, or Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper.

“So we would listen to this stuff in the afternoon and eventually we would take a little break and go over to the bar at the Hall of Fame Motor Inn,” Rooney says on the phone from Vermont. “You could walk over there. And we’d just digest the day’s gleanings.” 

They made a list of favorites, he says. And then, “John came up with a list of women singers and sent off notes to them saying would you want to sing with me on a record. And everybody said yes!”

Such was the A&R process for what would become In Spite Of Ourselves, John Prine’s surprising thirteenth studio album. Here was one of the most respected songwriters in history, an artist far more famous for his ninja wordplay and vivid characters than his voice, leaning into the mic with some of the finest country singers of all time, including Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless.

Prine had sung along with his old compadre Steve Goodman and others in folky fashion over the years. And at one point Tom Petty lent harmony to Prine’s choruses on “Picture Show,” but In Spite Of Ourselves was new terrain. “Duet singer” wasn’t what John Prine fans would have held up as evidence of his genius. Yet with this universally acclaimed album, and on through his death last week from Covid-19 at the age of 73, Prine emerged as an enthusiastic vocal collaborator, revealing new sides of the childlike, empathic character so evident in his songs. As pivotal and exceptional as this album was though, it nearly had to be abandoned in mid-stream.

The concept took shape when Rooney turned Prine on to then-unknown Iris DeMent. “I gave John a cassette of (her first album, 1992’s Infamous Angel) before it came out,” he said. “I knew he would love it. And he did.” The artists wound up touring together, and Prine gushed to Rooney that he’d been singing duets with DeMent on stage. He proposed cutting a song or two. “That’s how it started. He thought they could do some old country songs. And it just snowballed from there.”

Jim Rooney

Prine and Rooney got excellent results right away with Iris DeMent singing the George and Tammy cover “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” and “We Could,” a lush and widely recorded Felice Bryant love song. Connie Smith came over to cut “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” and “Loose Talk.” These were songs deep inside John Prine, says Rooney, who recalls that any time he rode in Prine’s car, something classically country was in the tape deck.

Then Prine went off on a tour and came back complaining that a sore on his neck had grown increasingly irritating. “Well that turned out to be the cancer,” says Rooney. Prine’s squamous cell carcinoma diagnosis hit his life, career and family hard, a “gut punch” as Rooney remembers it. Prine had two baby boys at home with his wife Fiona, and he had to go in for surgery and radiation treatment, which, try as they could to avoid it, couldn’t help but impact his vocal chords. It took the better part of a year before Prine told Rooney he was confident he felt his singing voice coming back.

It takes an engaged ear to detect the difference between the pre and post-surgery Prine on the album, but it’s there. On songs like “When Two Worlds Collide” with Trisha Yearwood and “It’s A Cheating Situation” with Irish singer Dolores Keane, we can hear that some of Prine’s treble edges are softened. There’s more resonance in his chest. Prine told NPR interviewer Terry Gross he liked what he heard: “It dropped down lower and feels friendlier to me. So I can actually sit in the studio and listen to my singing play back. Before, I'd run the other way.”

The final placing of the keystone of the album, its Prine-penned title track, has its own story. During his convalescence, Prine got involved in the Billy Bob Thornton movie Daddy and Them, including a small part and an assignment to write a song for the closing credits. The result was the risqué and hilarious duo “In Spite Of Ourselves,” sung as a sweet but shabby couple from the margins with the lyric “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/Caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies.” Iris DeMent thought it would embarrass her mama, but she cut it anyway. Rooney heard a demo with Prine singing, and was elated. “Even now, thinking about it, I was laughing and I was crying at the same time. Because first of all, he had his voice. He was singing.” It struck him as a perfect album title and affirmation that there would be an album after all. “That was the biggest thing. We’d gone for months just not knowing if we’d ever finished this project. And now we knew we would. And that was just one of the best days of my life.”

About seven years later, Prine made his second duets album, this time with country/bluegrass icon Mac Wiseman. With a top-flight gang of Nashville studio musicians such as Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, the gentlemen singers convey immeasurable warmth and geniality on deep catalog classics, including “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” and “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Prine was 60 at the time, Wiseman 82, and the album - Standard Songs For Average People - told layers of stories about the history of country music, the wisdom of our elders and John Prine’s expanding interest in joining his voice with others. 

With the 15th anniversary of In Spite Of Ourselves looming, Prine’s Oh Boy Records wanted to mark it by releasing the album on vinyl for the first time. The extra space on a second LP called for some new duets to be recorded. Once those wheels started turning, Rooney, who again came on to produce, says it quickly expanded into enough songs and guests to get an entirely new album. On 2016’s For Better, Or Worse, the cast was younger and more future-oriented. Besides Alison Krauss and Lee Ann Womack, Prine sings duets with Susan Tedeschi, Kacey Musgraves, Morgane Stapleton and Amanda Shires. (Not to be missed in these days of grieving especially are Prine’s performances with his wife Fiona on both albums, “When A Tear Becomes A Rose” on the first and “My Happiness” on the second. Their love and tenderness simply glows out of the speakers.)

The 2016 album marked a comeback for Prine, after nine years of retreat to deal with the effects of lung cancer, and it made a fine setup for the triumph of The Tree of Forgiveness two years later. It seems everywhere you look in these recent years of renewal and celebration, you can find Prine in duet mode, as if gathering his fold in a closer embrace. He signed singer/songwriter Kelsey Waldon to his record label and started putting out videos of the two of them singing songs about Kentucky. Prine joined Bonnie Raitt on stage at the 2019 Americana Honors & Awards, and it brought the house down. Not that Prine had ever been seen as diffident, but the time before his tragic demise became a particular celebration of the qualities that made him special as an artist and person - his desire to lift up others and his epic empathy.

“There was just something about him,” Rooney told me. “He was so unpretentious, and he was never putting himself above you. And for a guy who had a way with words, he didn’t talk a lot. He listened.” And any experienced duet singer will tell you, that’s where it all has to start.