One Track Mind: John Prine, "Hello In There" (2011)

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It was the first John Prine song I ever heard, and it still sends shivers of sad wonder. Learning more about his life around the time that “Hello In There” was composed only gives me a deeper appreciation for Prine’s innate sense of humanity — and the depth of talent he had as a writer from the first.

This newly released version, recorded the year before Prine’s career-making self-titled debut, is included on The Singing Mailman Delivers, out today on the singer-songwriter’s Oh Boy Records. A two-disc archival project, Singing Mailman traces his earliest recordings, as Prine slogged through the cold Chicago winter as a postal carrier in Maywood, the suburb of his childhood, while trying to make it as a performer once night fell.

“I still maintain that Chicago winters and postman-hungry dogs finally drove me to songwriting,” Prine says in pre-release materials. “I always likened the mail route to a library with no books. I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”

Given that context, it’s easy to picture Prine, then in his early 20s, sack full of letters slung over his shoulder, encountering the two aging parents featured on “Hello In There” — sitting together on the front porch. Alone now in front their echoing home, with the kids long gone, there is less and less to say. Even the memories end up as emotional cul-de-sacs: “We lost Davey in the Korean war — and I still don’t know what for,” the father says. “Don’t matter anymore.” Mostly they just sit and stare, thinking about what’s come and gone, in a devastating quietude. That leads Prine to a sudden revelation: “Old trees grow stronger and old rivers just grow wilder everyday … but old people just grow lonesome.”

And in that moment of empathy, he moves the song beyond narrative and deep into your heart.

Oaken and spare with just a finger-picking backing guitar by the vocalist himself, this initial take on “Hello In There” was recorded in August 1970 subsequent to an interview with Studs Terkel at Chicago’s WFMT studios. “I asked after the show if it were possible to stick around and tape all the songs I had written up until then,” Prine says. Those tracks are then coupled here with a live performance from a few weeks later in November 1970 at the Windy City’s Fifth Peg, where Prine would play three nights a week after finishing his day job. He runs many of the same songs again, this time with a friend accompanying on bass, only stopping for a single cover — a Hank Williams medley including “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Jambalaya” that Prine learned from his father.

What becomes clear, and all at once, was how fully formed Prine already was as a songwriter. A terrific archival journey.

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Oh Boy Records was also offering The Singing Mailman Delivers for sale via John Prine’s official online store at www.musicfansdirect.com.

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