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John Prine’s “For Better or Worse” Reviewed

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John Prine provides the perfect example of the difference between a “good” and an “effective” singing voice. Never Frank Sinatra in his youth, Prine always had the ability to deliver a sincere song with devastating emotion. On his 1970s protest material, he seemed more bemused than angered – like someone who knew we were living in a big old goofy world. Having survived neck and lung cancer, Prine is pushing seventy and lucky to be among the living. He’s clearly relaxed and having a good time on “For Better or Worse,” a collection of duets with female singers on classic country songs. This is very much a companion piece to his 1999 album “In Spite of Ourselves.” The thread between the records is the classic country material and the presence of Iris Dement, who provides a sass quotient that could rival Loretta Lynn.

“For Better or Worse” is somewhat of a comfort album. Very traditional and clean production values, no histrionics or manufactured urgency. It’s an early morning, cup of coffee, front porch effort. Prine is never condescending to the material and every female vocalist has the maturity to serve the song. Material ranges from the pre-rock era pop standard “Falling in Love Again” to the early 1990’s Vince Gill lifelong romance number “Look at Us.” Prine goes to the Hank Williams well three times, most effectively on the Luke the Drifter recitation “Just Waitin’.”

Highlights include covers of two Ernest Tubb/Loretta Lynn duets. (In the 1960s, Tubb was the established star and Loretta was the up and comer. Once she became more famous, she transitioned to singing duets with Conway Twitty who was more a contemporary than a father figure). On “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” DeMent tosses out her cheating spouse, who defends his role in the relationship based upon performing a menial task. “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be” documents a broken family – divorce was still a statistical rarity when this song was originally released in 1965. DeMent carries a sense of disappointment in her singing, with both parties showing more empathy than blame. “Falling in Love Again” is performed with Allison Krauss (it was reportedly her father’s favorite song) in an elegantly understated and beautiful manner. Also, it’s nice to hear the underrated Kathy Mattea who contributes on ballads made famous by Waylon (“Dream My Dreams With You”) and Willie (“Remember Me (When Candelights Are Gleaming”).

There really isn’t a bad cut on the record. I do get less enjoyment out of the few better known songs (“Cold, Cold Heart” with Miranda Lambert and “Color of the Blues” with Susan Tedeschi) since they compete in my mind with perfectly made original versions. The reason this record works so well, better than “In Spite of Ourselves” in my opinion, is that Prine selected better material – mainly mid-level chart hits that have been most likely completely forgotten or where never known to his current audience. Still, he picked the wrong closer. The poignancy of singing the 1959 Connie Francis hit “My Happiness” with the star of his life, his wife Fiona, is the cherry on this sundae.

Grade – A

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