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Recently, John Prine looked at dying. Then he made the record he’d been talking about for 15 years. He was diagnosed with neck cancer and underwent surgery and radiation treatment in early 1998. As he recovered, Prine jumped on the dream project—an album of cheating country songs he would sing with different women. He expanded the concept to include covers of courting and heartbreak and gossip songs. Then, as Prine recounted from the Birchmere stage Saturday, “I called up my favorite nine girl singers in the world. I couldn’t believe they all said yes.”

Prine’s lived-in voice (seemingly undamaged by the surgery) has never been considered much of an instrument—which makes the idea of his covering other people’s songs seem backward. But his warm timbre and wry phrasing cover for his lack of other vocal gifts, and he turns out to be a good interpreter and a courtly dueter on the new In Spite of Ourselves—15 country songs (plus one original) made famous by abler singers like George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Prine blends best on the album with deep twangers Iris DeMent and Melba Montgomery; Emmylou Harris; and his current wife, Fiona Prine, one of several Irishwomen on board. Only a few tracks come off as clunkers: Lucinda Williams sounds way too confused to put over Hank Williams’ “Let’s Turn Back the Years,” a song that requires absolute in-the-moment conviction. Williams’ voice, which slip-slides here like car wheels in a muddy ditch, is better suited to John Prine’s doper sing-along “Illegal Smile.”

In Spite of Ourselves’ only original is the title track, written for an upcoming Billy Bob Thornton movie in which Prine also plays Thornton’s brother—and Andy Griffith’s son. Prine, clearly starstruck by the sheriff of Mayberry, said he “felt like Opie’s stepbrother” on the set. It’s great to see Prine get a crack at the movies, which he’s sung about for years, but the song itself is a weak spot on the album. Prine gives in to a lazy tendency to sweeten crudeness with sentimentality—or vice versa. He makes poor DeMent warble affectionately, “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/I caught him once, and he was sniffin’ my undies,” then drags her through cliches like “We’ll end up sitting on a rainbow/Against all odds.”

DeMent took the stage Saturday in a somber black gown that stopped below her knees, and Prine’s trio were similarly formal in black suits and ties. All seemed to be paying respect to country music elders alive and dead—those saluted on In Spite—and DeMent’s family as well. She opened her solo set with “Sweet Is the Melody” from 1994’s My Life, which includes the line “It’s so hard to make every note bend just right.” It’s true of her; her voice swoops up to a yodel and down again like a bird riding thermal currents, more attuned to than in control of a song.

She locked into a current of sadness when she sang “No Time to Cry,” which mourns her father’s death and her own creeping hardness. Though we didn’t talk about it ’til later, several of us at my table cried; and DeMent herself did that telltale finger-sweep underneath her eyes when she finished. She moved between piano and acoustic guitar for her nine-song set, closing with Prine’s “Mexican Home.” She drawled, “Nothin’ in the rule book says I cain’t do a John Prine song just ’cause we’re sharin’ a stage.” DeMent has a twitchy, appealingly odd stage presence, murmuring self-deprecation like Steven Wright’s pretty little sister.

The crowd of adoring Prine fans, in their 30s and 40s and 50s, liked Iris just fine, but they leapt up when their recovered hero walked on, sporting a long red scar beneath his right ear and a bulky acoustic guitar. Flanked by a stand-up bassist and hotshot Jason Wilber on various electrified guitars and mandolins, he rolled out the early-’70s favorites, pausing before “Souvenirs” so Prine could give the low-down on his treatment and remission: “So far, so good.”

Wilber effected a gorgeous slide on “Angel From Montgomery” and a rambling version of “Jesus, the Missing Years,” which has the teenage Him “discovering the Beatles, recording with the Stones” before he realizes with horror that “I’m a human corkscrew and all my blood is wine….Mama, they’re gonna kill me.” The band made a rave-up out of 1995’s haunting “Lake Marie,” a tale of a dissolving marriage shot through with Indians, a double murder on the TV news, and “Louie, Louie”‘s “We gotta go now.” To my surprise, Prine and DeMent sang only five of the new duets. They appeared awkward and distant with each other on stage; DeMent sang with her arms crossed over her chest.

It’s hard not to hear the duets through the filter of Prine’s mortality. Country music accepts inevitability better than blues or rock ‘n’ roll; it’s already moved through the anger stage. By paying homage to the standards, Prine also gave up his songwriter’s reins to create a love letter to his extended country music family. In the twisted “Let’s Invite Them Over,” he and DeMent gave in to an irresistible urge to neighbor-swap: “We’re not in love with each other/We’re in love with our best friends/So let’s invite them over again.” Prine’s new duets are all mirror images that way, with the halves of each couple suffering symmetrically, sympathetically, seeking balance but not control. CP