Prine is great but Rock Hall isn’t the right fit

Friday, November 30, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 48

John Prine is an American treasure. People should be naming their pets – and maybe their secondary kids – after him.

But he shouldn’t be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Prine, in case you don’t know (it’s your loss if you don’t), is a singer-songwriter who grew up around Chicago but now wisely makes Nashville his home. He’s one of 15 nominees for the 2019 Rock Hall class, including Def Leppard, Janet Jackson and the Zombies.

About the others I will say nothing, other than to note that Prine is far and away my favorite of the bunch.

So why oppose his Rock Hall induction? For the same reason I’d oppose his induction into the Polka Hall of Fame (yes, there is one): It doesn’t suit him.

And, perhaps more important: He doesn’t need it.

As a singer, Prine won’t be confused with Roy Orbison or Freddie Mercury, especially since a diagnosis of, and treatment for, squamous cell cancer in his neck in 1998 altered his vocals.

But his songs. Oh, his songs…

I started to quote some lyrics, but a short sampling doesn’t do him justice. So, get on YouTube or dig into your personal collection and listen to a few.

Maybe start with “Sam Stone.” Try “Hello in There,” if you need your heart tugged. “Dear Abby,” for a hoot. Anything from his new album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” I’ll wait.

There. See what I mean? But ask yourself this: Do any of them sound even vaguely like rock and roll? Did you drum your fingers or nod your head to the beat? Feel an urge to dance? No.

Here’s how one fellow described Prine’s body of work:

“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

That fellow was Bob Dylan.

As to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, I enjoyed my one visit there some years back, especially the Dave Clark 5 exhibit, but it is what it is: a private business, a tourist attraction, that trades its induction “honors” as a means to draw attention to itself and visitors to its exhibits. At $26 general admission.

Putting Prine in the lineup would be trading on his artistry without adding significant honor to him.

My friend Tommy Goldsmith, a musician himself and a former music writer for The Tennessean, thinks Prine should go into the hall.

“In his nearly 50 years of master-class songs, there’s work that’s as country as Hank Williams, as folkie as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as intelligent as Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen, and as pop as the Everly Brothers and Cat Stevens,” Tommy says.

“They’re all in the hall, and Prine fits as well as any of them.”

He, adds, parenthetically: “If nothing else, Prine’s sometimes abrasive, cut-through-the-crap work certainly beats closer to the heart of rock and roll than that of ‘sensitive’ inductees such as Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Ha!”

Tommy isn’t the only one who disagrees with me. Among the others is apparently Prine himself.

“I started out in the folk music world only because of the way my songs were written and performed, with just an acoustic guitar, but I always related to the rock and roll lifestyle,” Billboard quotes him as saying. “So that’d be great to be in there, no matter what year they want to put me in.”

That doesn’t dissuade me. Of course, he’s not going to say he wants no part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why pick a fight with people purporting to honor you?

That’s my job.

By the way, Prine’s also up for another induction, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. My comment to that hall is much shorter:

What took you so long?

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.