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Culture Watch

Here Comes the Truth Squad 

When Kris Kristofferson first heard John Prine in 1971, he said his songs were so good "we’ll have to break his thumbs." It was high praise from a man who had just scored a No. 1 hit with Janis Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee.

What Kristofferson saw in Prine was a bit of a blue-collar reflection of his own classically educated renaissance man. Kristofferson had been a Rhodes Scholar and a championship rugby player. Prine was a postman who had legitimately come by the working class patina Kristofferson eagerly applied working on Louisiana oil rigs.

Prine exuded authenticity. Kristofferson had a movie-star jaw line. Neither became really famous for singing their own songs.

But both wrote devastatingly specific songs—songs with details that brought them to life—yet with emotions common enough to make them feel universal.

You didn’t have to smoke pot to wear an Illegal Smile. Any illicit joy would do. It didn’t matter if Baton Rouge was where you ended up busted flat or if it was Poughkeepsie or Santa Fe or Macon. You just had to know what it felt like to find something perfect in an impossible situation.

They are touring together now, with a stop at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. It’s been 40-some years since Kristofferson joked of silencing Prine’s pen. Both are famous enough to headline a show, but they needed a lot of help to get this far.

Kristofferson’s star was hitched to the voices of Joplin, Johnny Cash and Sammi Smith, plus a couple of Sam Peckinpah films. Prine traded on the kind words of Cash, Roger Waters and Bob Dylan, who called his songs "Midwestern mind trips" and "beautiful."

They ride into town on a wave of roots revivalism that swept music, especially country, in the past two decades. Both are still making new music, although that’s not what people are paying to hear.

Time—and, in Prine’s case, throat cancer—have added a certain gravitas to their performances. But hearing decades-old songs still feel relevant lends a good deal of significance to any show.

Prine’s Sam Stone could just as easily be about a Marine back from Afghanistan trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder as about the thousands of Vietnam vets he wrote of. And Kristofferson’s desire for physical connection in Help Me Make It Through the Night is about as timeless as any sentiment that exists.

Just as hearing Willie Nelson sing Crazy is like hearing it for the first time, hearing Prine and Kristofferson sing their own songs is an awakening. Other artists may have done them better, but no one else can bring out as much truth.

If You Go …

Kris Kristofferson and John Prine
8 p.m., May 11
Where: Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, 8099 College Parkway, Fort Myers
Admission: $47.50, $52.50
Info: www.bbmannpah.com, 481-4849

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