It is certainly how many who knew John best have been remembering him over the past week. In recent days I’ve been looking through YouTube, print media, television, and blogs to sample the flood of tributes that his musical fans — famous and otherwise — have posted about the songwriter that many called our generation’s Mark Twain.
What most of the tributes lack in technical excellence in this time of sheltering at home, they more than make up for in sincere love for the man and his music.
The always inventive folks at the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series have pulled together one of the most satisfying remembrances, gathering six singers and songwriters to perform in a “tribute from home” to John Prine. It is among the most touching Tiny Desk concerts ever. Margo Price and husband Jeremy Ivey, begin — appropriately enough in their bathtub — singing That’s the Way That the World Goes Round, which has the delightful verse,
I was sitting in the bathtub counting my toes,
When the radiator broke, water all froze.
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes,
Naked as the eyes of a clown. /
I was crying ice cubes hoping I’d croak,
When the sun come through the window, the ice all broke.
I stood up and laughed thought it was a joke
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
Price and Ivey are followed by the talented Courtney Marie Andrews, singing an absolutely lovely version of one of my favorite Prine songs, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness. I suspect her inclusion here will be a big eye-opener for many soon-to-be-fans. John Paul White, follows with a version of Prine’s classic Sam Stone that is almost guaranteed to make you cry. The final two songs come from Nathaniel Rateliff with All The Best and then Brandy Clark wraps up these moving 21 minutes with her version of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.
Amanda Shires was a long-time Prine friend and favorite collaborator, and her I So Lounging home livestream of a few days ago was a celebration of John Prine that wins the “most idosyncratic tribute” award. It begins with her husband, Jason Isbell, singing Angel from Montgomery, followed by stories and their versions of Clocks and Spoons and finally Illegal Smile (with Shires — wearing absolutely outlandish sunglasses — singing the lead on those tunes). There’s a great story around the 29:00 mark of how they asked John and his wife Fiona how they stayed married for so long. Both responded in unison, “stay vulnerable.”
In other videos, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy plays the quirky Please Don’t Bury Me (about donating your organs…such as the knees to the needy), the incomparable Norah Jones sings a beautiful That’s the Way the World Goes Round, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters performs a slow blues of Prine’s Paradise, and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James plays a string of Prine songs, including Spanish Pipedream.
Stephen Colbert — a famous Prine fan and supporter — has been featuring musicians on The Late Show this week playing John’s songs. Colbert tells how his then-girlfriend / now-wife, introduced him to Prine’s music and then recalls several interactions with the singer, recounting how he even had the chance to sing a duet with Prine. He then introduces Brandi Carlile to sing the haunting Hello in There. As she says in her introduction, many people who didn’t know John Prine are about to get a whole lot of truth dumped on them. Dave Matthews also performs his version of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness. And for those who can’t get enough of Bonnie Raitt singing Angel from Montgomery, check out this 2019 version from The Late Show.
I recommend you find the time to watch some of John’s shows from his later years. One of the best is this intimate concert from 2019 on The Strombo Show. Gordon Lightfoot, who is one of John’s songwriting heroes, sits in the front row enjoying it as much as anyone, and you can watch him sing along with the familiar chorus of Far From Me: “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle / looks just like a diamond ring.” John also does a bit of mouth music in the song Crazy Bone and then says, “Please don’t mistake that for scat singing, that’s my shaving song in the morning. Somewhere between Popeye and Fred Flintstone.”
It is clear that Prine’s death from COVID-19 has touched deep places in our souls during this pandemic. And it is good that this is the time “we’re getting a whole lot of truth dumped on us.” A bungled response to the pandemic deserves to be placed up against all that we’re losing as a result of the incompetence and lack of empathy. As Prine himself once said, after playing his song Caravan of Fools which equates wealth with idiocy, he wanted to add a disclaimer: “Any likeness to the current administration is purely accidental.” Of course, it wasn’t.
I hope John’s checked into that sweet hotel, enjoying a vodka and ginger ale at The Tree of Forgiveness right about now. How can you not love a man who could write, “I want to see all my mama’s sisters / cause that’s where all the love starts / I miss them all like crazy / bless their little hearts”?
More to come…