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John PrineMuch like Woody Guthrie or Loudon Wainwright or Lyle Lovett, urban folk singer/songwriter John Prine has always skillfully walked the thin line between satirist and clown, bard and minstrel - deftly inserting bitter truths, biting humor, and scarifying visions into gentle - even tender - folks songs. His little holiday record, A John Prine Christmas (Oh Boy! Records, 1993), is much in the same vein, full of sardonic asides in a season known for its sentimentality. This is certainly not a bad thing - given Scrooge or Santa, I'll choose Ebenezer every time. But, Prine's thin veil of sincerity isn't made less opaque by the fact that his Christmas feast seems more like Thanksgiving leftovers, more an odds-and-sods offering to his devoted fans than a genuine celebration of the season. Strictly speaking, none of these recordings have appeared on an album before, but the CD is just eight tracks long, with nearly all the songs recycled from previous efforts.

That doesn't make A John Prine Christmas a bad record - in fact, I like it quite a bit - but it dulls its impact. That said, two of the songs represent Prine at his best: dry, sweet, and tuneful. "Everything Is Cool" first surfaced in less developed form on The Missing Years (1991), and it may (or may not) speak to the redemptive power of the holiday. "Just before last Christmas my baby went away," recalls Prine dryly before noting, "God sent me an angel to chase away my blues." Much sweeter is "Silent Night All Day Long," an entirely new song drenched in nostalgia:

We held hands and stared at the lights on the tree,
As if Christmas was invented for you and for me.
When the angel on the treetop requested a song,
We sang 'Silent Night' all day long.

Thankfully, we also get "Christmas In Prison," Prine's dark yule epistle to the woman who haunts a lonely inmate. "She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire," Prine quotes, adding sorrowfully, "I dream of her always, even when I don't dream." A John Prine Christmas includes a spare live version of the song; the superior, original recording appears on Sweet Revenge (1973) and Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (1993).

Only three songs on A John Prine Christmas qualify as remotely traditional, and the first two were pulled from the red vinyl, 7-inch single Prine used to launch his Oh Boy! label in 1984. Prine gives "Silver Bells" a lovely, Dylanesque reading, then romps through "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with mischievous glee (using an arrangement lifted by John Mellencamp for his 1987 version on A Very Special Christmas). The third track, "A John Prine Christmas," is a rambling soliloquy set to music.

That leaves new live versions of "If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man" and "All The Best" - both excellent songs, neither of which have anything to do with Christmas. Prine first recorded the former with the Cowboy Junkies on their 1992 LP Black Eyed Man. The latter originates from the soundtrack to Falling From Grace, a 1992 film to which Prine lent his musical and dramatic talents.

"Man, oh man, I sure love Christmas," Prine exclaims at one point. The little boy on the cover (John, age 3) sure did, and the adult who recorded A John Prine Christmas seems to still feel that way. The album is a modest gift, for sure, but it is a gift from the heart.

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Christmas In Prison (1973)
  • Everything Is Cool (1993)
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1984)
  • Silent Night All Day Long (1993)
  • Silver Bells (1984)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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