Poor John Prine has an addiction. He can’t stop bringing home tchotchkes.
When he bought a place in Florida a while back — the songwriter and his wife already had homes in Nashville and Galway, Ireland — Fiona declared that their new getaway would be a clutter-free zone.
“I sneak stuff through the back door,” says Prine with a mischievous chuckle.
He can’t pass an airport gift shop without buying something of no importance, he says, though he’s quick to amend the thought.
“That’s the problem,” he says. “Those things have meaning.”
For Prine, a crackerjack songwriter whose nearly 50-year career has drawn almost as many peer testimonials as paying customers, there are songs inside all the things in life that have deep meaning. There are also songs, or at least couplets, in utter meaninglessness.
“I’m sitting in a hotel trying to write a song/ My head is just as empty as the day is long,” Prine sang on “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” a tune ingeniously composed of cliched similes. Appearing on the 1991 album “The Missing Years,” it was part of a batch regarded as a comeback for Prine; the record won a Grammy as best contemporary folk album.
“The Tree of Forgiveness,” which came out in April, is Prine’s 19th studio album, his first of original songs in more than a decade. His current tour brings him to the Boch Center Wang Theatre Friday. Produced by Dave Cobb, with a few songs co-written by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and guest appearances by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, it’s another comeback of sorts for the 71-year-old Illinois native, who has survived two bouts with cancer.
About three years ago Prine unexpectedly lost his manager of nearly 40 years. Al Bunetta helped Prine found his own record label, Oh Boy!, in the mid-1980s, decades before other artists began prying themselves from the clutches of the major labels.
After a brief period of rudderlessness, Fiona took over her husband’s management duties, and their oldest son assumed leadership of the label.
“They sat me down and said, ‘It’s time for you to make a record,’ ” Prine recalls, on the phone from Florida. “They didn’t ask me how many songs I had. They booked a hotel suite and put me in there for a week, with 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics from the basement, three guitars, and a uk[ulel]e.
“Before I knew it I had 10 songs,” he says.
With typical serenity and laughing-Buddha wisdom, he produced an affecting collection of tunes that cover “my life, mortality, love, and everything,” he says. Tracks range from the exquisitely simple, Buddy Holly-ish “I Have Met My Love Today” (with Brandi Carlile singing backup) to the joyous finisher “When I Get to Heaven,” with its instant-classic saloon singalong about what he’ll do upon arrival: “I’m gonna get a cocktail/Vodka and ginger ale/ Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.”
Whether he’s writing about Vietnam veterans, the solitude of old age, or adorably crotchety relationships, Prine is a lifelong master of the pluperfect detail. Two years ago, he accepted PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
For Prine, it’s all life, and it’s all worth honoring. He’s been known to keep a Christmas tree year-round. When he goes through songwriting droughts, he doesn’t sweat it.
“I just regard it as a gift,” he says. He might be “eating hot dogs, driving my car, and I get an idea. I don’t sit around going ‘Moon, June, tune.’ ”
The warm response to “The Tree of Forgiveness” — the album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard chart, his highest showing ever — “does liven up the juices,” he admits. “It does make you want to write some more.” But his calendar is pretty well booked with live dates for the next two years, he notes: “It’ll be a total accident if a song pops out.”
When he does have time to relax back in Nashville, he’ll be down at the work space he shares with fellow singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson. Though they call it a “writer’s room,” neither of them has written a thing there, Prine says with a laugh. It’s more like a clubhouse, he explains, with room for Simpson’s drums, Prine’s 10-foot pool table, and the 1942 Wurlitzer jukebox his late friend Steve Goodman gave him for his uncredited help on the hit country song “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.”
The jukebox, Prine says, plays 78 rpm records that have to be flipped manually. He keeps it stocked with old hillbilly records by Hank Williams Sr. and Lefty Frizzell and early rock ’n’ roll releases by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry, many of which he got as gifts from the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent.
Peter Wolf, who is opening for Prine at the Wang Theatre, says he first heard the singer in 1971, before the release of the debut album “John Prine.” That album, featuring “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” and “Angel From Montgomery,” instantly marked Prine as an exceptional find. Wolf was in San Francisco, and Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin played the demos for him.
“It was, ‘Bam!’ ” says Wolf. “He’s been top shelf from that day for me. All the musicians and songwriters I respect feel the same way.” Prine’s songs, he says, “seem to have a special landscape of wit and shadows.” The two performers spent a couple of late nights together in an English pub in Nashville in the ’80s. Prine says he’s a “big fan” of Wolf’s, especially his recent rootsy solo records.
Some years ago Prine became the first songwriter to read and perform his lyrics at the Library of Congress, at the invitation of then-Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.
Though he was flattered, he says, “I regard what I do as song lyrics. I don’t regard it as poetry. If somebody else wants to say that, that’s fine,” he jokes, “as long as I get paid.”
His friend Kris Kristofferson and the late greats Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt — now those guys, he says, you might call poets.
“I’m just trying to do words that bounce off your ear the way they bounce off the tongue,” he says. “No, I ain’t a poet.”
But then he’ll come up with a lyric that sums it all up — like, say, this bit of vocal improv on the new album: “Deedle yep bop, ba da ba.”
It’s just a little trinket, but he’s got a lot invested in it.
With Peter Wolf. At Boch Center Wang Theatre, June 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $63.75, www.bochcenter.orgJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.