“It wasn’t a really good time for her to do it, but she dropped everything and showed up,” Prine says of his duet with Lambert for his new album, For Better, Or Worse. The two recorded the song in January, not long after Lambert’s divorce from Blake Shelton and at the same time the singer was working on her own new album.
“I let her pick the song, because of all the stuff that was going on in the newspapers. I didn’t want to ask her to come in and do a divorce song, or to do a sad song, I said, ‘You can pick a sad one or a happy one and I’ll go along with it.'”
Her choice? “Cold, Cold Heart,” the Hank Williams classic, made into a duet for Prine’s album, which features the legendary songwriter alongside some of the top female voices in country and Americana music singing covers of classic country songs.
Alongside Lambert (who has said of Prine, “I’m not sure I will ever be able to grasp the depths of John’s fearlessness when it comes to his art”), he sings with the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Morgane Stapleton (wife of Chris Stapleton), Iris DeMent and Kacey Musgraves. “Singing with them smooths out my rough voice,” Prine says. “They make me sound a little sweeter.”
With tunes like “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise” to his name, John Prine commands respect in Nashville circles, so the songwriter — who even Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan has named among his favorites — was able to handpick his duet partners for the project, which began as a few bonus songs for a reissue of his 1999 duets album In Spite of Ourselves before it turned into a full-length album of its own.
Some of his singing partners, like DeMent, were old friends (“I wouldn’t do a duets record without Iris,” Prine says. “We got a thing going.”) while others, like Lambert, he first met while recording.
Lambert, however, was on Prine’s radar since her blistering 2010 CMA Awards performance of his song “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” a cut from her 2009 album Revolution.
“I’ve been watching the CMAs since I was old enough to walk and I know that record companies always push the artists to debut their next single, but Miranda didn’t care,” says Prine, 70. “I just sat there on my sofa with my mouth open. The guitars were wailing and I thought, ‘I like that girl!’ A number of people have done it as a folk song and they totally screw it up. Miranda nailed it.”
Prine’s relationship with Musgraves goes further back to when the “Follow Your Arrow” singer moved to Nashville in 2008.
“I met Kacey the first week she came to Nashville,” says Prine, who was getting ready to do a show at Nashville’s famed Station Inn when the young singer approached him. “This little girl and her friend came up and said they wanted to take me out to the parking lot and get me high! I said, ‘I really appreciate it, but I have to go do a show!’ And then Kacey dropped a cassette in my pocket and on the cassette was one of the first songs she ever wrote called ‘Burning One with John Prine’ — and it’s a really good song!”
“I have huge love and mad respect for Mr. Prine,” Musgraves tells PEOPLE, adding that first hearing his music “completely turned my songwriting world upside down. It was a very full-circle moment for me to be asked to sing with him on his record.”
The two tried to write a song together for the project, but after a fruitless half hour, “she looked up and me and said, ‘Mr. Prine, I think we’re trying to re-write ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ and I said, ‘I think so too.’ Neither one of us felt like writing that day anyway! ” Instead, they opted to take on “Mental Cruelty,” a sassy divorce ditty first cut in 1960 by Buck Owen and Rose Maddux. “We were laughing our asses off while we sang it,” Musgraves says.
That sense of musical joy is part of the reason the master songwriter chose to record an album of covers.
“When I’m making my own record, it’s real work for me,” says Prine, who is at work on an album of his own new material, which will be his first in 12 years. “I worry like crazy about my own stuff. But when I go in to sing someone else’s it’s just pure fun for me — and having these girls come in is even more fun.”