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John Prine Mixing Family, Songwriting

Of the Oakland Press

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After nearly 36 years of recording, John Prine says that "a blank piece of paper still scares the hell out of me."

That may explain why we've heard from the critically loved singer-songwriter only sparingly of late.

Prine's most recent release, 2005's "Fair & Square" -- which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album -- was his first in five years and his first set of new material in a decade. There were plenty of mitigating factors, including the birth of two sons (now 12 and 11) and a battle with cancer, which was diagnosed in 1999.

But these days Prine, who's cancer free after treatments, says he's more interested in taking his time and writing for quality rather than quantity.

"The very process of writing, thinking about having to go and write the song, is just daunting to me anymore," says Prine, 60, who was born in Maywood, Ill., and began recording in 1971, after being discovered by Kris Kristofferson. His wry, sometimes caustic and sometimes sweet songs have been covered over the years Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt, among others, and in 1978 he left the major label world to form his own imprint, Oh Boy!, which continues to release his albums -- including a collaborative effort with fellow troubadour Mac Wiseman that's due out in April.

With a lifestyle that now includes waking up at 6:30 a.m. -- "About the time I used to go to bed," he says with a laugh -- and hauling his boys to school and sports activities, Prince now finds it effective to "set traps for myself" to put him in songwriting situations.

"I try and find a favorite day of the week, like Tuesday," he explains. "There's this (restaurant) that has meat loaf on Tuesday that's nearby the place where I write. So that gives me a reason to go write.

"I need to do that 'cause, lemme tell ya, it doesn't take much to get me to walk away from a song. Someone asks me to get a hot dog, and that's it. I just leave the song behind."

Another trick Prine uses is hanging out with other writers, who help get his creative and competitive juices going.

"I like to have my time with my buddies to shoot snooker and play dominoes or whatever," says Prine. "All my buddies are songwriters, so when I go hang out with them I can always say I'm working, right?

"And you can actually get some good songs out of it, just by being with those guys."

He does lament that he isn't as free to write as he once was; car trips, which once helped spurred song ideas, have given way to "driving to a soccer match, which isn't really conducive to writing and ruminating." But Prine isn't complaining about his lot. Family life, he says, has been much more fulfilling than what came before it, even if means he's less prolific in his craft.

"It's a great way to live," he says. "I would vote for this much more than my old party life. But I was glad I got to do that for as many years as I did. I can't wait for the photos to get developed..."

The 30th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 26-27) at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University on the U-M campus. Tonight's show features Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Jackie Green, Ember Swift, Millish, Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams and the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble. Saturday's bill includes John Prine, Terri Hendrix & Lloyd Maines, Bill Staines, Mountain Heart, Over the Rhine, Daisy May and Paul Thorn. The RFD Boys play both shows and Jeff Danciels emcees both nights. Tickets are $45 and $30 each night; two day passes are $80 and $50, and patron seats are available for $150 and $75. Call (734) 761-1451 or visit www.theark.org.

Web Site: www.theark.org

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