(UPDATE: John Prine passed away from COVID-19 on April 7, 2020, just three-and-a-half weeks after I wrote this post suggesting how much we needed his music and his outlook on life. My appreciation can be found here.)
This seems like a good weekend to recall the work of the man who wrote the classic line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
John Prine has been in my life, and in my head, forever.
When the singing mailman was discovered in 1970 at The Fifth Peg in Chicago by a young journalist named Roger Ebert, he was already writing and playing such incredible songs as Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Paradise. In fact, those were the first three songs Prine ever played on stage. To hear a 1970-era country singer and songwriter tackling subjects such as the Vietnam War and drug use, old age and loneliness, and environmental degradation and rural depopulation in such a sensitive and thoughtful way was unheard of from the country music industry in nearby Nashville — or at least it was in my experience as a teenager in Tennessee. While John was writing Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, Merle Haggard was winning praise from the right wing for “love it or leave it” songs like The Fightin’ Side of Me. It was a strange time.
So, who thought we’d be back there again so quickly?
Which is why we need this American treasure as much as ever. As one reviewer wrote,
“Nobody ever bought a John Prine album for the beauty of his voice. The Illinois native has the vocal range of a bass drum and the subtlety of Kentucky moonshine. Prine’s genius — displayed erratically over almost 30 years and nearly 20 albums’ worth of wholly novel songwriting — has always been his ability to blend the sublime and the goofy to illuminating effect.”
He can write laugh-out-loud songs like Jesus, The Missing Years, Dear Abby, and In Spite of Ourselves (sung as a duet with the incomparable Iris DeMent). He writes great kiss-off songs like All the Best with the wonderful line, “Your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you.”
But he also continues to write and sing about people and situations out of the mainstream, yet authentic to the core (see Caravan of Fools*), while featuring up-and-coming musicians as his companions in rhyme.
Prine was recognized with one of the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement awards earlier this year. At the awards show, the great Bonnie Raitt performed an acoustic version of Prine’s classic Angel From Montgomery in homage.**
I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
One of my favorite John Prine songs is Long Monday. In his typically off-beat way, he’s written an affectionate love song about a wonderful weekend and the aftermath of Monday morning.
You and me
Sittin’ in the back of my memory
Like a honey bee
Buzzin’ ’round a glass of sweet Chablis
Windows rolled up
And my mind’s rolled down
Like silver moons
Rollin’ on the ground
We made love
In everyway love can be made
And we made time
Look like time
Could never fade
We both made the guitar hum
Saturday made Sunday feel
Like it would never come
Gonna be a long Monday
Sittin’ all alone on a mountain
By a river that has no end
Gonna be a long Monday
Stuck like the tick of a clock
That’s come unwound – again…”
John has been touring overseas this winter, before returning to the mainland in time for Jazz Fest on May 3rd, New York City’s Apollo Theatre on June 20th, and Wolf Trap, in a show with Emmylou Harris, on June 26th. A cancer survivor, for which we are all fortunate, John is someone you should enjoy while you can.
More to come…
*In his live versions of Caravan of Fools Prine adds a disclaimer to the song saying, “any likeness to the current administration is purely accidental.”
**The version I’ve linked to is actually from the Bonnie Raitt + Ruthie Foster performance from the film Road to Austin. It is just sublime. Plus, Raitt begins by saying, “I’d like to sing this song for Molly Ivins, for Ann Richards!” Enough said.