And now it claims John Prine. Damn.
Anyone who ever cared about “a word, after a word, after a word” is grieving today. America lost one of its greatest songwriters to the coronavirus when John Prine died on April 7th at age 73. When I wrote about Prine and his music just a little over three weeks ago, on March 14th — before the world learned he was suffering from the symptoms of COVID-19 — I said it was a good time to recall the work of the man who wrote the classic line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
Now that he’s gone, we’ll have to be content with what is an amazing body of work by any definition.
The origin story could come from a classic Prine song. He was a postman who wrote during his breaks. On a dare from friends (and under the influence of a few beers) he stepped up to an open mic and sang Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Paradise, three songs, any one of which most songwriters would have given their left arm to have written. A young Roger Ebert wrote his first music review of Prine performing in 1970 at the Fifth Peg in Chicago. In that review, he noted that “He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.” Kris Kristofferson stopped by to hear him play one night after the bar had closed. Prine pulled out his guitar, played seven songs, and Kristofferson asked him to play all seven again. Then he helped him get his first record deal and wrote the liner notes for his first album, where he memorably noted that Prine was “Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty.”
And what a debut album it was. 1971’s self-titled John Prine was an incredible introduction to everything fans came to love about him: the topics that mattered (war, drug addiction, environmental degradation, phony patriotism, love, the elderly, and — especially — death); the right turn of a phrase; the focus on the ordinary and downtrodden of life; the goofy humor; the obvious care for fellow travelers. It opened with Illegal Smile, and introduced us to the first of a seemingly endless treasure trove of Prine one-line real-life vignettes: “a bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down / and won.” Forty-four minutes later we were all won over.
Forty-nine years later we’re still in awe.
Prine had a way with words that, in just one or two lines, brought his listener into his worldview. In Angel from Montgomery, also from that remarkable first album, he begins his story of a tired middle-age Southern housewife in a broken-down marriage with, “I am an old woman, named after my mother / My old man is another child that’s grown old.” Bonnie Raitt made it her own in a memorable cover, but in fact, it was everyone’s song. To begin, as a 23-year-old man, inhabiting this character right from the start, and to end with ‘To believe in this living is just a hard way to go” — the line that Tim Bousquet in the Halifax Examiner described as the best single lyrical line describing existential despair — makes Angel from Montgomery 3 minutes and 43 seconds of astonishing songcraft. Part of the genius of John Prine is his ability to see life through his characters. It is what makes him so authentic, and so empathetic.
Sam Stone says more about the Vietnam War than most long-form essays and books. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes” aches from the perspective of the child watching her father deal with a heroin habit to kill the pain. The line that follows, “And Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” was Prine’s way of capturing the hopelessness of the life of a forgotten war vet, who went to war to kill people without knowing why, and then came home to get hooked on drugs to forget.* Similarly, his Hello in There — beautifully covered by Bette Midler in her stunning debut album The Divine Miss M — looked at old people with an empathy and understanding that you simply didn’t hear from pop culture in the 70s. He writes memorable words that Joan Baez sang just last week in her tribute to John: ““We lost Davy in the Korean War / And I still don’t know what for / Don’t matter anymore.” Then that aching chorus:
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people, just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
Paradise was written for Prine’s father about the degradation of the beautiful western Kentucky landscape. “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay” begins the well-known chorus. Then his father has to respond, “Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” In my youth, my father took me to Paradise to see “the world’s largest (steam) shovel” because that’s what engineers do. I think Daddy came to the realization later in life that Prine’s perspective was right. When Peabody filed for bankruptcy in 2016, many stories referenced that song in their reports.
John Prine was all about the details of life in a world that was cruel at times, but also where love shown through. And those details often focused on the everyday…until he spun them around through his quirky sensibility. After surviving throat cancer, he wrote,
“I been thinking lately about the people I meet
The carwash on the corner and the hole in the street
The way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet
And I’m wondering if I’m gonna see tomorrow.”
“Everything just looks better to you,” Prine told CBS Sunday Morning. “You’re more grateful for smaller things. And it feels pretty darn good.” In the song Souveniers, Prine wrote, ““I hate graveyards and old pawn shops / For they always bring me tears / I can’t forgive the way they rob me / Of my childhood souvenirs.”
He kept writing wonderful songs through two cancers and four decades on the road. Bob Dylan once said Lake Marie would be his choice if he had to pick just one John Prine song. “We were standing, standing by peaceful waters” and that great cleansing jam at the end, as one writer phrased it.
Some of Prine’s songs were just laugh out loud funny. Sweet Revenge, the title song to his third album, begins with a classic line: “I got kicked off Noah’s Ark / I turn my cheek to unkind remarks / There was two of everything but one of meeeee.” Jesus, The Missing Years is Prine’s take on the 18 years between the well-chronicled childhood and three years of ministry included in the Bible. “He discovered the Beatles and he recorded with the Stones / Once, he even opened up a three-way package for old George Jones.” Space Monkey was supposed to be a three-chord love song, but instead became the story of a monkey that the Russians shot into space, and then forgot. When he returns, the Soviet Union has dissolved. “There’ll be no one to greet you when you get back home / No hammer or sickle you’ll be all on your own.” In telling how he ended up in space for so long, Prine throws in his usual off-beat perspective:
He had plenty of Cuban bananas and loads of Spam
But he found great difficulty trying to open the can
One day he slipped on a banana peel and the ship lost control
It spun out of orbit and shot out the black hole
It’s been four decades now, that’s nine monkey years
That’s a long time for a Space Monkey to confront all his fears
“Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine / it bounces around ’til my soul comes clean,” he sang on “Boundless Love,” off of 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, his last album. “And when I’m clean and hung out to dry / I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry.”
Prine named his final album partly after an Irish restaurant he visited called The Tree of Idleness. Changing idleness to forgiveness, Prine inserted it in one of his songs as the name of the watering hole in heaven. “[If] all these people that are all such Christians are gonna be there,” he told The Guardian, “you’re going to need a drink.”
Prine told interviewers that he didn’t plan for The Tree of Forgiveness to be his last record. However, he did include a song at the end about exactly what he hopes heaven will look like when he got there, called “When I Get to Heaven”: all the cigarettes he can smoke, all the cocktails he can drink, the pretty girl he can kiss on the tilt-a-whirl, all the loved ones he might see again when he’s gone. He’s up there smoking a cigarette “nine miles long.” (Prine gave up smoking after his throat cancer, but he never gave up his love for smoking.) “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm,” he also sang. “What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?”
Prine has written a lot about death, from Paradise to When I Get to Heaven. There is a lovely and thoughtful piece by writer Jayson Greene in Pitchfork that covers, as well as anyone, Prine’s take on death.
“I guess I just process death differently than some folks,” he admits. “Realizing you’re not going to see that person again is always the most difficult part about it. But that feeling settles, and then you are glad you had that person in your life, and then the happiness and the sadness get all swirled up inside you. And then you’re this great, awful candy bar, walking around in a pair of shoes.”
As he grew older, Prine became a legend who was forever supporting new songwriters and singers. He nurtured an entire generation of songwriters, from Margo Price, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Amanda Shires to Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Kacey Musgraves. In fact, Musgraves returned to the roots of John’s first album when she sang Burn One With John Prine to John Prine. He was also an author, and if you are interested in exploring that part of Prine’s history, here’s a delightful 2018 interview with him from Chapter 16 — the community of Tennessee writers, readers, and passersby — about songwriting, Paradise, and his book Beyond Words.
Prine’s duet in the wonderful In Spite of Ourselves, captures so much of his magic as a songwriter and performer. As Jayson Greene writes, “The song is a duet between Prine and Appalachian folk singer Iris DeMent. He is wry, croaky, and barely tuneful; she sounds like someone’s loopy aunt.” Greene notes, “The verses are nothing but dirty jokes. But the chorus feels like another message from the beyond, putting words to a vast, nameless feeling.”
“In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up sitting on a rainbow / Against all odds, honey we’re the big door prize / We’re gonna spite our noses right off of our faces / There won’t be nothing but big old hearts dancing in our eyes.”
In this time of despair and loneliness, let’s look at the others in our lives — warts and all — with “empathy, forgiveness, and love.” That’s how John did it his entire life.
Rest in peace, John Prine. You’ve put hearts dancing in our eyes for a long time.
More to come…
* In describing the writing of Sam Stone, he said, “I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018. “And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’ ” When Johnny Cash covered the song, he rewrote the chorus, changing “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” (“If it hadn’t have been Johnny Cash,” Prine said, “I would’ve said, ‘Are you nuts?’”)