(from Tijuana Bibles)
(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough: Everybody The Torch Singer Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues Sour Grapes Billy The Bum The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You Take the Star Out of the Window The Great Compromise Clocks and Spoons Rocky Mountain Time
John Prine writes a song like The Frying Pan now and then — strong shades of parody, joyously silly (even stupid), and irresistibly appealing. "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" and "Aw Heck" and the next song on Diamonds in the Rough, "Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You," are like that. Should we think seriously about a song that couldn't even get recorded with a straight face?
The lyrics to The Frying Pan are wildly unambitious and seem like they may have been made up on the spot. They relate the tragic tale of a man who comes home from work to find that his wife has left him. He grieves. And that's about the extent of it.
There are a few telling details. The wife leaves her goodbye note in the frying pan, presumably to make the point that she was appreciated neither very deeply nor for the right things:
I come home from a-work this evening
There was a note in the frying pan
It said, "Fix your own supper, babe.
I run off with the Fuller Brush man."
The song doesn’t say whether he actually makes his supper in that pan –- a bitterly seasoned meal inDEED! Prine's character then "commenced a carrying on":
And I miss the way she used to yell at me
The way she used to cuss and moan
And if I ever go out and get married again
I'll never leave my wife at home
So the character grows, and his future wives may find him somewhat more attentive.
John Prine understands that the ordinary details of everyday life are where all the drama and meaning are. But the details of everyday life keep changing with surprising speed –- you realize this more the older you get. I think this is why the songs on Diamonds in the Rough seem so meaningfully, precisely, poignantly located at a specific point in the past.
The last door-to-door salesman I remember seeing was an actual Fuller Brush Man who came to our door when I was around nine. I dimly remember his case full of brushes, as well as the feeling he created that buying some brushes was absolutely inescapable. I very distinctly recall my mother once asking me to tell him I was home alone while she was, in fact, hiding nearby. I guess I may be from the last generation of John Prine listeners who will have direct experience with Fuller Brush men at the door.
Appreciating a Prine song –- or any song –- requires more and more research, explanation, and imagination the older the song gets. It requires more and more of the listener’s participation and knowledge to make the full meaning and pleasure happen. That’s why it makes sense to me, at least, that popular song first became high art in the context of a Folk Revival.
Bluegrass is lurking in all the arrangements on Diamonds in the Rough, but only The Frying Pan puts it at center stage. Everything is there, except maybe a fiddle.
David Bromberg's mandolin "chops" the rhythm and then does lightning-fast runs. Steve Goodman provides the requisite smokin' bluesy guitar solo and high-lonesome backup vocals. Steve Burgh provides standup bass. And Dave Prine plays the most recognized of all bluegrass signatures — a 5-string banjo with a resonator back, played with three fingers and finger picks. The solo spot after each chorus is taken by another instrument, passing the spotlight around from one bandmember to another. It’s bluegrass.
There’s just one thing. I’m used to thinking of bluegrass in a smooth, fast 4/4 time — each beat in the measure emphasized (or de-emphasized) the same. This open, spacious, adaptable meter is what allows the complex, synchopating, polyphonic, collective noodling of a bluegrass band — and it also allows that band to “stay together,” to remain in close conversation with itself. The 4/4 meter was Bill Monroe’s main and final insight, learned from the jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and it completed his creation of bluegrass music.
The Frying Pan, as I hear it, is in the meter Bill Monroe finally left behind –- the 2/4 time that's closely associated with oldtime stringband music and that gives it an easy, front porch, loping feel. Instead of the banjo skittering, independent as a hog on ice, across the surface of an open 4/4 time, Dave Prine's playing sounds cramped inside the ONE two THREE four oldtime beat. The result is a banjo that sounds simple, old, and sincere, if somewhat bound by circumstances. It also sounds like the banjo-playing that David Akeman and Earl Scuggs did in Monroe’s band in 1945 and 1946. The Frying Pan sounds like a portrait of bluegrass represented exactly at the moment it became itself.