Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: John Prine

The great and the really great
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Although he has never made it commercially, John Prine has been considered one of the premier songwriters in Americana and folk since his first album, John Prine (Atlantic), came out in 1971. "Sam Stone," the story of a Vietnam vet turned junkie, "Hello in There," made a hit by Joan Baez, and the monumental "Angel from Montgomery" were instantly and forever pasted on the American psyche, even if Prine has never reached household-name status.

Prine released records steadily through the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, without a drop-off in quality. His talent lies in sketching the stories of everyday people and injecting the characters with the most human emotions in a way that adds a literary depth to the songs without stumbling into the heavy-handedness many folk writers fall prey to. Delivered in his characteristic scratchy tone, Prine's songs can almost literally kill you if you listen to them at the wrong time. "Far from Me" is one of those. Be very careful here.

His latest album, Standard Songs for Average People (Oh Boy), is a laid-back collection of country covers performed with bluegrass vocalist Mac Wiseman. The pair perform some known numbers — "Saginaw, Michigan" and "Old Rugged Cross" — and cover tunes by Tom T. Hall and Prine pal Kris Kristofferson. An operation to remove cancer from his throat in 1999 has given Prine an even more distinctive voice, and now when he plays his older material, such as the numbers off 2000's Souvenirs (Oh Boy), it finally sounds as if the words being sung aren't coming from a precocious 21-year-old but from some world-weary everyman who lives behind the Greyhound station. Simply put, Prine is one of the most talented folksingers America has ever produced. He has two types of songs: great songs and really great songs.

JOHN PRINE

Sat/6, 1:30 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Star Stage

HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL

The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

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