From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
“I am an old woman.” So goes the opening of “Angel from Montgomery,” first released in 1971 by John Prine, who was neither a woman nor old. Along with songs like “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” on his self-titled debut album, “Angel From Montgomery” introduced Prine as a songwriter with an expansive imagination and empathy for people in all ages and stages of life.
“If you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented. You let the character write the song,” Prine once commented about “Angel from Montgomery” in an interview with Paul Zollo. “Once I’ve got an outline, a sketch in my mind, of who the person was, then I figure I’d better let them speak for themselves—rather than me saying, ‘Hey, so here’s a middle-aged woman. She feels she’s much older.’ It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.”
Covers of “Angel from Montgomery” quickly followed Prine’s debut, including versions by John Denver and, most famously, Bonnie Raitt in 1974. Raitt’s soulful take on “Angel” helped make it one of Prine’s most widely covered songs.
Prine’s original recording of “Angel” featured gospel-style production led by piano and organ. Nearly 30 years later, Prine revisited the song on his Souvenirs album (which he made so that he’d own master recordings of some of his early songs) with a sparse arrangement centered on his fingerpicking guitar and the mandolin of his longtime sideman Jason Wilber. That later recording is the basis of this transcription.
Play “Angel” here with E shapes and a capo at the second fret, so the song sounds in the key of F# (a half step lower than the original recording in G). Use a steady alternating bass throughout.
One distinctive feature of Prine’s song that Raitt does not replicate (and therefore neither do the countless musicians who learned the song from her) is the single bar of 3/4 that happens on the B7, the V chord—a departure from the song’s otherwise regular 4/4 time. (Raitt stays in 4/4 throughout.) Prine’s time-signature change takes getting used to but adds an interesting flavor.
The notation/tab shows Prine’s intro on Souvenirs. Note how he plays the G string open when changing chords at the end of bars 5 and 9 on the E, bar 6 on the D, and bars 7 and 10 on the A. The open-string notes give you a little extra time to move to the new shape.
Prine’s accompaniment under his singing is very similar to the intro. In the last line of the chorus, pause the fingerpicking pattern on the A chord and let it ring. For the instrumental that follows the second verse (on Souvenirs, that’s a sweet slide solo), play the chorus part but without the pause on A.