John Prine’s dry, crackling croon and wondrously wry songs have been part of the fabric of American music for so long that it’s easy to forget he was once a hotshot 24-year-old Chicagoan compared to Bob Dylan (by Kris Kristofferson, no less) in the liner notes of his massively hyped 1971 debut album. Can you imagine a neo-folkie in the Internet age surviving 40 minutes—much less 40 years—after that kind of introduction? It’s reasonable to assume that the younger generation of singer-songwriters tackling 12 Prine chestnuts on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs Of John Prine admire the man’s career as much as his artistry. He was never a star; he merely became an institution, building his legend slowly over the course of four decades, one sadly funny drinking song at a time.
It’s a tribute to Prine’s solitary musical path that the best interpretations on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows sound only like their interpreters. Justin Vernon’s warm, blurry version of the brilliant “Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow)” conveys the song’s longing for inner peace in strictly musical terms, while Josh Ritter strips down the rowdy “Mexican Home” to reveal a gorgeous vision of domestic tranquility. Unsurprisingly, “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” fits Drive-By Truckers like a Bud in a can-cozy, and My Morning Jacket applies its dreamiest Nashville Skyline treatment to “All The Best.” Even the weaker covers—particularly Conor Oberst’s rote “Wedding Day In Funeralville”—are still pretty good; they are John Prine songs, after all.