Classic Americana Albums: John Prine “In Spite of Ourselves”

Oh Boy Records, 1999

In spite of throat surgery – one of the all-time greatest collaborative albums.

In April 2020, the americana community on both sides of the Atlantic was saddened by the news that at age 73, John Prine had died due to complications from Covid-19. Launched with the help of Kris Kristofferson in 1971, he is widely credited with starting the Chicago Folk Revival. In 1981, he co-founded Oh Boy Records, an independent record label with which he released all of his subsequent albums. A well-decorated artist, Prine won four of the thirteen Grammy awards for which he was nominated; however, surprisingly, this covers album did not win any prizes. It makes up for what it lacks in awards through  sheer numbers and quality. The album contains sixteen duetted tracks, each one by a different writer, and includes nine female singers. The album features the skill and talents of at least twenty-five country stars, many of them legends in their own right. ‘In Spite of Ourselves‘ was a comeback album. Four years after the previous studio album ‘Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings‘ and two years after the release of ‘Live on tour‘ in 1997. It also came a year after he was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer. The surgeries gave his voice a new gravelly depth, one that no one would wish for, but it was a silver lining to the life-threatening situation. Presumably, low on time to write original songs and feeling reflective, Prine produced a series of duets with female artists of songs that influenced and illuminated him. The result is an album for all time. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of americana:

1. ‘(We’re Not) The Jet Set‘ by Bobby Braddock with Iris DeMent
2. ‘So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)‘ by Don Everly with Connie Smith
3. ‘Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back the Years‘ by Claude Boone/Hank Williams with Lucinda Williams
4. ‘When Two Worlds Collide‘ by Bill Anderson and Roger Miller with Trisha Yearwood
5. ‘Milwaukee, Here I Come’ by Lee Fikes with Melba Montgomery
6. ‘I Know One‘ by Jack Clement with Emmylou Harris
7. ‘It’s a Cheating Situation‘ by Curly Putman and Sonny Throckmorton with Dolores Keane
8. ‘Back Street Affair‘ by Billy Wallace with Patty Loveless
9. ‘Loose Talk‘ by Freddie Hart and Ann Lucas with Connie Smith
10. ‘Let’s Invite Them Over’ by Onie Wheeler with Iris DeMent
11. ”Til a Tear Becomes a Rose‘ by Bill Rice and Sharon Rice with Fiona Prine
12. ‘In A Town This Size‘ by Kieran Kane with Dolores Keane
13. ‘We Could‘ by Felice Bryant with Iris DeMent
14. ‘We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds‘ by Melba Montgomery with Melba Montgomery
15. ‘In Spite Of Ourselves‘ by John Prine with Iris DeMent
16. ‘Dear John (I Sent Your Saddle Home)‘ by Tex Ritter with Aubrie A. Gass

The songs chosen include some written by Hall of Famers Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Don Everly, Jack “Cowboy” Clement, and Bobby Braddock. The overwhelmingly prominent lyrical feature of the tracks is joyful love loss (even more so than other country records). The duets include a magnificent selection of female artists: Iris DeMent, Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, Patty Loveless, and his wife, Fiona Prine. The female vocals contrast and enhance Prine’s ‘new’ sonorous voice – presumably a creative choice. Highlights include the DeMent penned eponymous song, which stands above the others for its humour and beauty. Produced warmly, yet clearly, by Jim Rooney, who had already made Dement’s debut album ‘Infamous Angel‘ and had won a Grammy for his work with Nanci Griffith’s ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms‘. Every aspect of this album is classic americana.

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DeMent did not pen the eponymous track. It was written by Prine.