When John Prine released his self-titled debut album in 1971, it seemed as if a major new songwriter had miraculously appeared out of nowhere (or Chicago, which to many folks seemed like roughly the same thing at that time), and this set of early Prine recordings suggests that his gifts as a writer appeared fully formed without a long gestation period. The Singing Mailman Delivers
includes Prine's first demo tape, cut at a Chicago radio station in August 1970, and a recording of the songwriter on-stage at a Windy City folk club three months later, both put to tape when Prine was still holding down a day job as a letter carrier. The studio tape is as simple as can be, just Prine and his guitar, and the voice has a bit less of the drawl he would affect later on (which always seemed a bit suspect from a boy born and raised in Illinois), but the songs, all but one of which would appear on his early albums, make clear he already had a singular lyrical voice -- witty, literate yet plain-spoken, and mature beyond his then-24 years -- and he could deliver his material with a casual confidence that was winning. (The one otherwise unrecorded song, "A Star, A Jewel, and a Hoax," sounds more like a fragment than a fully formed song, and it's no tragedy that it was lost to history until now.) The live tape has a bassist backing Prine on a few songs, but otherwise sounds quite similar, though he was already attracting a devoted audience (they can sing along on several of his tunes) and Prine appears to be having a ball, cracking wise between tunes, bantering with the audience, and breaking out his Tex Ritter
impression for the final verse of "The Great Compromise." Still, while Prine doesn't betray a bit of pretension in front of an audience, he can also venture into more serious material like "Hello in There" or "Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues" (an early draft of "Sam Stone") and gently but firmly take his listeners with him. The Singing Mailman Delivers
doesn't do much to rewrite Prine's early history, but it confirms he revealed a remarkable talent as soon as he put his mind to writing songs, and it's an entertaining addition to his catalog for longtime fans.