Classic Albums Revisited: John Prine’s ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ Finds the Humor in Love and Marriage
When I first heard "In Spite of Ourselves," I thought my neighbor George —the one who brought his guitar to every 4th of July bonfire and made our spirits sing with a worn outlaw voice and worn, outlaw country songs — was making it up on the spot. Such a display would have been in character, after all. George loved to tell jokes that made the adults laugh, and the kids wonder, and he loved songs with humor just as much as songs with an aching heart. He loved to pick someone in the family before he started a new one and say that the song was for them, so I grew up thinking that "In Spite of Ourselves" belonged to my cousin, Tia, because she smiled the biggest.
At the time, I didn't know that George had learned all of this over a lifetime of listening to John Prine. I thought all the magic was his and, by association, ours. It would be years before I grew up and realized that this is what Prine did for every person who made his music a part of their lives.
Prine released his thirteenth album, In Spite of Ourselves, in 1999; it was his first since battling throat cancer. What made it a truly unique record in Prine's discography was that — for the first time — only one cut (the title track, "In Spite of Ourselves") was written by Prine himself. The other fifteen songs were old-time country classics, reimagined by Prine and some of the finest women in the genre. Iris Dement, Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Garris, Dolores Keane, Patty Loveless, and his wife, Fiona Prine, all joined Prine for the album.
While fans were undoubtedly hoping for a new batch of originals, they got a deeper look into Prine's musical influences, tastes, and his own mind. Though these were not tracks penned by Prine, it was easy to parse through the songs and imagine how these old classics had influenced him. Whereas other country artists would use a duets album to highlight old romantic standards or traditional blue-and-lonesome songs, Prine picked tracks that reflect the reality of the every-person's marriage — conflicting desires, plenty of small-town gossip, and all the strange quirks that can only be endearing in true love's eyes.
On "Let's Invite Them Over," Prine and Iris Dement sing not of their burning desire for each other, but for a couple they're friends with. Then, the two sing of their unworldly ways on "(We're Not) The Jet Sets," posing a question that is central to the album's heart: "No we're not the jet set / We're the old Chevrolet set / But ain't we got love?"
The answer is a resounding yes. Prine's ability to mirror the love, wit, and wisdom found in everyday, humble life was one of his greatest gifts. On "In a Town This Size," he and Dolores Keane begrudge the ways of nosy neighbors eager to turn minor romantic squabbles into runaway rumors. Then, Prine joins Melba Montgomery for a rendition of "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," singing of two old lovers ready to forgive and forget.
While each song deepens our understanding of committed love, the title track is the album's crown jewel- perhaps one of Prine's greatest songs of all time. Trading verses full of absurdities that are actually trojan horses for tenderness, Prine and Dement are an absolute delight to the ears. When the last chords are played, and it's just Prine stating the words for one last time — "in spite of ourselves" — an epiphany of sorts unfolds: we can get in our own way all we want, but love smiles, laughs, and keeps coming straight at us.
John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves Track List:
1. "(We're Not) The Jet Set" with Iris DeMent (written by Bobby Braddock)
2. "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)" with Connie Smith (written by Don Everly)
3. "Wedding Bells/Let's Turn Back the Years" with Lucinda Williams (written by Claude Boone, Hank Williams)
4. "When Two Worlds Collide" with Trisha Yearwood (written by Bill Anderson, Roger Miller)
5. "Milwaukee, Here I Come" with Melba Montgomery (written by Lee Fikes)
6. "I Know One" with Emmylou Harris (written by Jack Clement)
7. "It's a Cheating Situation" with Dolores Keane (written by Curly Putman, Sonny Throckmorton)
8. "Back Street Affair" with Patty Loveless (written by Billy Wallace)
9. "Loose Talk" with Connie Smith (written by Freddie Hart, Ann Lucas)
10. "Let's Invite Them Over" with Iris DeMent (written by Onie Wheeler)
11. "'Til a Tear Becomes a Rose" with Fiona Prine (written by Bill Rice, Sharon Rice)
12. "In A Town This Size" with Dolores Keane (written by Kieran Kane)
13. "We Could" with Iris DeMent (written by Felice Bryant)
14. "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds" with Melba Montgomery (written by Melba Montgomery)
15. "In Spite Of Ourselves" with Iris DeMent (written by John Prine)
16. "Dear John (I Sent Your Saddle Home)" (written by Tex Ritter, Aubrie A. Gass)