Folks may have noticed by now that John Prine has a way with words. At 71, he’s become an elder statesman of American songwriting, a role he accepts and even appreciates, as he noted in a Monday afternoon discussion with KUTX’s Elizabeth McQueen at Waterloo Records. Tuesday night, he followed with a master class of sorts at ACL Live, taping “Austin City Limits” for the eighth time in his storied career.
“I guess I’m just going to keep on doing it till I get it right,” he said of those multiple appearances on the long-running TV show, giving us that Prine wit right out of the gate. “It’s a damn good place to come to, and it’s hard to leave.”
The motivation for this latest taping, his first in more than a decade, is “The Tree of Forgiveness,” released in April and somehow the first Prine album ever to reach the top-10 of the Billboard album charts. Nine of the 16 songs he played on this night were from that album; the only track left out was “God Only Knows” (not the Beach Boys classic but a song Prine started writing with legendary producer Phil Spector decades ago and recently finished).
Prine seemed like an old soul even when he was a young man writing songs destined to be classics such as “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” the latter of which he played early in Tuesday’s show to set up the new material. It’s no surprise, then, that his writing has been so strong in his later years. Most legacy artists would be pushing it to play a set so dominated by their newest material, but Prine can pull it off because what he’s doing now is as good as, maybe better than, anything he’s ever done.
Even the stories that prefaced the songs were golden. “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” has the kind of crazy title that almost requires an explanation. The audience broke out in laughter when Prine related a friend’s tale from youth about farmers who brought their eggs to town, dropping off their daughters at the roller rink where the local teenagers would take notice.
Even better was the prelude to “Lonesome Friends of Science,” a tune Prine cooked up after getting peeved that astronomers had suddenly declassified Pluto as a planet, then clarified it was a dwarf planet. “That was like kicking a guy while he was down,” Prine cracked, before launching into the jaunty tune about how Pluto “got uninvited to the interplanetary dance.”
He touched on the Trump era with “Caravan of Fools,” a darker number written with his longtime cohort Pat McLaughlin and Black Keys leader Dan Auerbach. Noting that the song is “about impending doom,” he said he hesitated to call it a political number, but noted that it “has more verses than there are original members in the cabinet of the present administration.”
A solo section toward the end of the 75-minute set gave Prine a window to reach back for a couple more favorites from his past. He chose “Everything Is Cool” from 1991’s Grammy-winning “The Missing Years” and “Illegal Smile,” the very first track on his 1971 debut album. The latter tune turned ACL Live into a hootenanny for the final verse, the crowd gleefully singing along, “Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone, no I’m just trying to have me some fun.”
He also used the solo section to introduce Tyler Childers, a rising star from Kentucky who joined Prine on “Please Don’t Bury Me” and then got his own moment in the spotlight for “Lady May,” the closing track on his 2017 album “Purgatory.” Childers knew how fortunate he was to have the opportunity, saying simply, “Well this is awesome.”
Prine’s terrific band — multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist Dave Jacques and drummer Kenneth Blevins — returned for the final three songs. The brackets were older favorites “Lake Marie” and “Paradise,” but the linchpin was “When I Get to Heaven,” the last tune on “The Tree of Forgiveness.” Bouncing back and forth between spoken recitation and joyful singing, it’s the most uplifting song about leaving this world you could ever hope to hear. When Prine gets to heaven, he tells us, “I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock ’n’ roll band, check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?”
Prine returns to Austin on June 30 for a ticketed performance at Bass Concert Hall.
1. Six O’Clock News
2. Angel From Montgomery
3. Knockin’ on Your Screen Door
4. Caravan of Fools
5. Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)
6. Boundless Love
7. Summer’s End
8. I Have Met My Love Today
9. Lonesome Friends of Science
10. Everything Is Cool
11. Illegal Smile
12. No Ordinary Blue
13. Please Don’t Bury Me (with Tyler Childers)
14. Lady May (Tyler Childers solo)
15. Lake Marie
16. When I Get to Heaven