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There are two new albums involving the singer-songwriter John Prine. One is called "John Prine In Person & On Stage" and is a collection of concert performances from recent years. The other is a tribute album called "Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine." On that one, some of Prine's most familiar songs are covered by younger admirers such as Josh Ritter and bands including My Morning Jacket, Drive-By Truckers and Deer Tick.

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews both.

Mr. JOHN PRINE (Musician): Hello.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Spanish Pipedream")

Mr. PRINE: (Singing) She was a levelheaded dancer on the road to alcohol and I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal. Well, she pressed her chest against me about the time the jukebox broke. Yeah, she gave me a peck on the back of the neck, and these are the words she spoke. Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, go to the country, build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try to find Jesus on your own.

KEN TUCKER: John Prine possesses a sage goofiness, a wit untouched by world-weariness. He sings in a drawled manner of phrasing that cuts any possible pretense in his impeccably metered wordplay. His new live album proves that hes retained all these traits into senior citizenship. The same cannot be said of the tribute album saluting him, though. This version of same song Prine just sang, "Spanish Pipedream," is rendered with an excessive jauntiness by the Avett Brothers.

(Soundbite of song, "Spanish Pipedream")

AVETT BROTHERS (Folk-rock band): (Singing) She was a levelheaded dancer on the road to alcohol and I was just a soldier on the way to Montreal. Well, she pressed her chest against me about the time the jukebox broke. She gave me a peck on the back of the neck, and these are the words she spoke. Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, move to the country, build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try to find Jesus on your own.

TUCKER: Tribute albums, always well-intentioned, tend to be pretty dreary affairs, and "Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows" is no exception. Most of those who admire Prine here execute his subtle turns of emotion with something closer to flat-footed awe and imitation. One of the few bands that gets Prine right by not sounding like John Prine is the

(Soundbite of song, "Daddy's Little Pumpkin")

DRIVE-BY-TRUCKERS (Alternative country band): (Singing) You must be daddy's little pumpkin. I can tell by the way you roll. You must be daddy's little pumpkin. I can tell by the way you roll. It's quarter past eleven and you're sleeping on the bedroom floor. I can see the fire burning, burning, baby burning, right behind your eyes. I can see the fire burning, burning right behind your eyes. You must have swallowed a candle or some other kind of surprise.

TUCKER: That song is about as minor as John Prine material gets I want to hear a Drive-By Truckers version of "If You Don't Want My Love," shockingly not performed on either of these collections.

As for Prine's live album, he cherry-picks favorite performances of his from the past few years. Being the laid-back, generous but high-standard type of fellow that he is, Prine knows how to choose the right people to sing his material, as is proven on this duet with Iris DeMent on the wonderful "In Spite of Ourselves."

("Soundbite of song, "In Spite of Ourselves")

Mr. PRINE (Singing) She don't like her eggs all runny. She thinks that crossing her legs is funny. She looks down her nose at money. She gets it on like the Easter Bunny. She's my baby I'm her honey. I'm never gonna let her go.

Ms. IRIS DEMENT (Country-folk singer): (Singing) Well, he ain't got laid in a month of Sundays. I caught him once and he was sniffing my undies. He ain't too sharp but he gets things done. Drinks his beer like it's oxygen. He's my baby and I'm his honey. Never gonna let him go.

Mr. PRINE AND Ms. DEMENT: In spite of ourselves we'll end up a sitting...

TUCKER: Because he started out strumming an acoustic guitar, and because one of his first well-known songs was a Vietnam War-era song called "Sam Stone," Prine gets pegged as a folk singer-songwriter, when in fact, hes always had at least as much country music in his rhythm and his rhymes. That's another thing his kind admirers on his tribute album don't seem to get: That you can convey sincerity through something besides emoting. It's called detachment a detachment that roots a soaring, ringing song such as "Glory of True Love" in an earthiness that really enables it to lift off.

(Soundbite of "Glory of True Love")

Mr. PRINE: (Singing) Oh, the glory of true love is a wild and precious thing. It don't grow on old magnolias or only blossom in the spring. No, the glory of true love is it will last your whole life through. Never will go out of fashion. Always will look good on you. You can climb the highest mountain...

TUCKER: In 1998, Prine lost some throat tissue to cancer, and some of the range in his already ragged tone to radiation treatment. He sounds pretty great on almost every cut on this live album, though. And he could teach the whippersnappers with juicier vocal cords on his tribute album a few things about how to sell a song. Not for nothing did Bob Dylan declare just last year that Prine's songs are, quote, "Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree." From a master of mind games to a master of mind trips, that's a pretty good tribute all by itself.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "John Prine In Person & On Stage" and Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine."

You can listen to two tracks from "John Prine In Person & On Stage" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

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