For a guy who still isn’t a household name after almost three decades in the music business, singer-songwriter John Prine has some pretty famous fans. Bette Midler and Johnny Cash have covered his songs, and Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, and R.E.M. have worked his tunes into their concert lists. Having recently won a battle with cancer, Prine may finally steal center stage back from his celebrity supporters. ”In Spite of Ourselves,” his album of duets with Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and others, is at No. 32 on the country charts. He’s also starring in ”Daddy and Them,” a new movie from Billy Bob Thornton about a poor Arkansas family that shatters after a relative is charged with murder. Prine spoke with EW Online about acting, illness, and why country music ain’t what it used to be.
How did you get stars like Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and Lucinda Williams for this album?
John Prine I had 40 names of girls, but the first 9 I called all said yes, which I didn’t expect. I thought they’d say, ”Great idea, John, but I’m going to be in China for a couple of years.”
What do you think about new trends in country?
It’s pop, that’s what it is. It’s making money, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for the best of music.
Do you think we’ll see a return to old-fashioned country music?
I think so. Country always returns to its roots. It will always go back to a steel guitar and a good story.
You took off a year and a half after you were diagnosed with cancer. Did that affect your career?
It’s made everything really fresh for me again. Everything was going great for me before I got sick, but now that I’m on the other side of this cancer thing, it magnifies how good it is.
You had a tumor removed from your neck and radiation therapy. Did those things affect your voice?
They were going to try to shield the vocal chords, but I told them, ”Have you ever heard me sing? I want you guys to go in there and clear everything out, and then I’ll worry about singing.” If anything, it dropped my voice a little bit and made it broader. It’s a hell of a way to get vocal lessons.
Who do you play in ”Daddy and Them”?
My character is Alvin, the oldest son in this family where everyone’s always got a beer in their hands at all times and they’re having Bloody Marys for breakfast. Alvin still lives at home with Mom and Dad, reading Zane Grey Westerns all day. But he becomes a pivotal character at the end of the movie and kind of saves everybody.
How did you land a starring role?
Billy Bob Thornton wrote this whole thing after I came to Hollywood and hung out with him for a couple of days. We became phone pals after ”Slingblade” through a common friend. It turned out Billy was a big fan of my music, and we had a ball. The last thing we did while I was visiting him was go to a Chinese restaurant with Andy Griffith. I thought that was the pinnacle of my career.
Now Griffith plays your father in the movie and you also costar with Kelly Preston, Laura Dern, and Thornton. Were you intimidated on the set?
I just knew my lines and asked Billy Bob what he wanted me to do, and it seemed to go okay. It was great having your own trailer and a director’s chair with your name on it and sitting there with Andy Griffith! I might have to go Hollywood.
Some people are already calling you a legend. What do you think of that?
I’m all right with it [laughs]. I kind of went from nowhere to a legend and skipped all the other parts. Now I’m heading for the category ”Oh God, I didn’t know he was still alive!”