John Prine's debut album came out in 1971, the year he turned 25. Tom Waits was 23 when his own debut came out two years later. From the beginning, they were both old souls.
More than four decades later, neither one of them wants to grow up. As songwriters, they share an uncanny sensitivity for the full range of human experience, from the light to the dark, the humdrum to the truly bizarre. They're the next two recipients of PEN New England's Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards, to be presented on September 19th at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Prine and Waits (who will be honored alongside his wife, Kathleen Brennan, his songwriting partner for much of their long marriage) will join Chuck Berry, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and Kris Kristofferson in the elite company of Song Lyrics award winners. The biennial event began in 2012, with Paul Simon and Keith Richards on hand to honor Berry and Cohen. In 2014, Lyle Lovett, T Bone Burnett and the late Allen Toussaint took part in honoring Kristofferson and Newman.
The criteria for choosing the award recipients is simple, says Rosanne Cash, a member of the nominating committee that also includes Elvis Costello, Peter Wolf and Bono.
"They've contributed definitive works to the American canon," she tells Rolling Stone. "That's basically it. You can't imagine a broad version of the American songbook without the songs of these people."
Besides the performers, the committee to choose the Song Lyrics honorees includes several writers: Salman Rushdie, author and MTV executive Bill Flanagan, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon and former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey.
This year, the committee considered honoring Merle Haggard, who died in April. The intent, Cash says, is to recognize our most accomplished songwriters while they can be celebrated in person: "There are so many living people who deserve it."
What makes a great song? "We could talk about that forever," she says. "We have an excess of riches to choose from."
It was Brennan who helped Waits move from the saloon-bum style of his earliest records to the theatrical eccentricity that emerged with his great 1980s trilogy Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. Cash says a song like "Time," from Rain Dogs ("She said she'd stick around 'til the bandages came off"), is "so freaking poetic and vivid. Each scene could stand alone."
"The first thing that captured me about Tom was just his cadence, the sound of his voice," Cash says. "As I became a songwriter myself, studying his lyrics was inspiring, to say the least. That eclectic disjointedness – there's a purity to it that's really fascinating to me."
As for Prine, who added guest vocals along with Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell and Tony Joe White to a song on her most recent album – "God's own chorus," she jokes – Cash calls him "the sweetest person ever.
"I played with him at [New York's] Beacon Theatre a couple of years ago, and I sat and listened to him sing 'Hello in There' from the side of the stage. I had tears rolling down my face, and I've heard that song a million times."