John Prine

Friday, May 14, at the Palace Theatre.

"Twenty-four years old and he writes like he's two hundred and twenty," wrote Kris Kristofferson for the back cover of John Prine's eponymous debut more than 30 years ago.

The former mail carrier's ability to turn a phrase, combined with early '70s timing, made Prine one of the first singer-songwriters forced to don the "next Dylan" tag, and one of only two (the other being a fellow from "the swamps of Jersey") able to successfully cast the label aside and fashion a clear identity.

But whereas Dylan's poetry arrived as if passed down from the gods, and Springsteen's broad strokes approach a near-operatic scale, Prine's literate writing has never been off-putting or remote. Rather, his deceptively simple lyrics have always struck a poignant balance between the comic and the tragic, conveying the experience of ordinary folk in a musical style equivalent to a wise neighbor's nod and wink.

Though he's never been in the same zip code as a radio hit, and a not-too-distant battle with throat cancer reinforced an already leisurely work schedule (midweek fishing trips and a new album when he gets around to it), Prine's legion of loyal fans fill weekend theaters across the country for a welcome dose of his sagacious charm. Nowadays, somebody somewhere ought to be looking for the next John Prine.

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