Evaluating a "Greatest Hits" album is weird. Obviously it's good, right? Prine, like Elvis Costello, is a great songwriter with whom I have been pretty unfamiliar, and Prime Prine, his 1976 compilation, seemed like a good place to start.
Only ... I can't help but feel that it wasn't the best place to start. It only covers his first four albums, so it misses out on all his later work, including classics like "Speed Of the Sound Of Loneliness." Moreover, it's not even complete as far as his first early albums go: "Angel From Montgomery" is notably excluded.
What's there is very good. Like with many singer-songwriters, Prine is at his best when stripped down to just his voice and acoustic finger-picked guitar, such as the haunting post-war cautionary tale "Sam Stone" are in this mode. Prine does a great job covering emotional ground other artists won't touch: "Donald and Lydia" turns a one-night stand into a treatise on the human tragedy that we can never share our true feelings with others. The intimacy of the emotional power of these lyrics in dulled a little bit in more produced numbers like "Saddle In the Rain" and "Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard," though Prine still displays a great ear for lyrics and melody. At times, he shows a terrific sense of humor, as in a live version of "Dear Abby," which mixes home-spun wisdom "Stop wishin' on bad luck and knockin' on wood" with funny scenarios from imaginary letter-writers.
I can unequivocally recommend John Prine and his music. He's a gifted songwriter and perform and a unique voice in American music. Prime Prine? You can probably find better introductions.