John Prine in Atlanta in 1975. Tom Hill/Getty Images
By Jeff McCord
I often think of John Prine when I remember my son’s childhood. He attended an Austin Montessori school, Parkside, from pre-school through third grade. Each Friday morning, the school’s founder, Joe Bruno, led the children in a celebration of life through song. He called it Simple Gifts. (It’s a tradition Parkside continues to this day.)
Whenever we could, my wife and I would attend. Situated among “Accentuate the Positive” and sweet, life-affirming songs written by Bruno like “Chlorophyll”, was what I always considered an interesting choice of repertoire: John Prine’s “Paradise”.
Prine usually couched his anger more carefully. But beneath the lilting waltz of “Paradise” is a screed of environmental assault. I’m pretty sure Bruno omitted the more descriptive verse about how the coal industry “tortured the timber and stripped all the land”, but I’m also certain the children – the older ones, anyway – didn’t miss the import of what they were singing.
“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay /Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking /Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
We’re all feeling loss like this now. John Prine passed away at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville on April 7th after spending many days hospitalized, a victim of COVID-19 complications. He was 73 years old.
It’s easy to think of his short-stories-disguised-as-songs as simple gifts. ‘Simple’, not so much in their creation, as in how they felt – like stories being passed on by a friend. Prine often stated in interviews how the best songs were written in the same amount of time it took to sing them. False modesty, no doubt. In conception and execution, his material must have been hard work.
It just never felt that way. Prine was in the upper-echelon of songwriters, but unlike a lot of his super-serious peers, he wasn’t above the odd joke or throwaway line. “Sam Stone” was a visceral portrait of a Vietnam veteran’s plight. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose”. Yet up next, embedded in the chorus: “Little pitchers have big ears / Don’t stop to count the years”. It was a dichotomy you came to accept from Prine, the humorous deflection, optimism in the face of all reason, and a big solution as to why his reach spread larger than many of his peers. His empathy for his characters extended to his fans, too. For every “Sam Stone” or “Great Compromise”, there was an “Illegal Smile”, a “Fish and Whistle”. Dark but sentimental, removed yet gregarious.
Born 1946 in Maywood, Illinois into a music-loving family, Prine took a job early on as a mailman. While walking his route, he began incubating his material, observing humanity, the hard-luck stories, the older shut-ins, the flag decals in back of Readers Digest. The draft interrupted his postal service career. By luck, he found himself stationed in West Germany “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks”, instead of on the front lines in Vietnam.
Once out of the Army, he moved to Chicago and resumed delivering the mail. Attending some open-mic sessions at Chicago’s Fifth Peg club, Prine wowed the few people that actually showed up. One of them happened to be Roger Ebert. Breaking from his Sun-Times film beat, Ebert published a rave review. Soon Prine was playing his own shows, with respectable audience turnout. Friend and collaborator Steve Goodman convinced Kris Kristofferson to show up one night, which he did, so late that Prine had to unpack his guitar and get back up on stage to give him a private show. It paid off. Kristofferson invited him onstage weeks later at a NYC Bottom Line show. In the audience was Jerry Wexler, who signed the mailman to Atlantic Records the very next day.
Prine’s eponymous debut, released in 1971, unleashed a stunning array of songs on an unsuspecting public. “Spanish Pipedream”, “Paradise”, “Hello in There”, “Angel From Montgomery”, “Sam Stone”, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, “Donald and Lydia” – all among his very best work. Yet the album sold only modestly. Prine’s folksy charm was straddling the pop/rock/country/folk lines of demarcation; boundaries even obvious influences like Bob Dylan were having trouble navigating in the early seventies. Prine helped pave the way for the many artists now grouped under the Americana label. But in those days, in the views of the major labels, he was no James Taylor.
No matter. Prine would never have an actual hit of his own, but the album had made him a star, and set in place an audience who would loyally follow his work for decades.
John Prine’s songs were an embarrassment of riches. There’s lonely Lydia imagining herself with Donald: (“But dreaming just comes natural / Like the first breath from a baby”). The unnamed narrator of “Angel From Montgomery” (also told from a woman’s perspective) sits amongst the ruins of her unfulfilled life. “If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire,” she muses, “This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.” Later popularized by Bonnie Raitt, “Angel” is told with resigned, threadbare emotion, by someone who literally wants to fly away from her life. “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” It’s probably Prine’s best lyric.
It has a lot of competition, though. In these days of social distancing, “Hello In There” is the Prine song I keep coming back to, the tale of a lonely elderly couple whose wish of even being acknowledged seems far-fetched. It’s almost unbearably sad.
These songs, plus the aforementioned “Paradise” and “Sam Stone”, were all included on his debut album. Entire careers have been built upon less. Prine was just 25 years old.
Understandably, he had trouble following up such an achievement. His next three albums on Atlantic failed to move the needle much in terms of success. His second, Diamonds In The Rough, was a dark and spare collection of bluegrass-themed material Prine claimed cost around $7200 “including beer”. There were some memorable songs from these records, but overall, Prine seemed to be adrift and losing his focus.
1978’s Bruised Orange, his first album for Asylum Records, brought things crashing down to earth. A wounded Prine dusts off and picks up the pieces here. Produced by his friend Steve Goodman, Prine chronicles his dissolving marriage (“There She Goes”, “If You Don’t Want My Love”), and tries to break free of his grief on the title track:
“For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter / You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there / Wrapped up in a trap of your very own / Chain of sorrow”
Bruised Orange is Prine’s most personal and powerful album, but of course, he can’t help but laugh his pain away – “You’re up one day and the next you’re down / It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown /That’s the way that the world goes ’round.”
Over the years, Prine endured triumphs and pitfalls. He would divorce and remarry a second time, start his own record label, collaborate with musicians who used to be his young fans. Collaboration blunted his idiosyncrasies but brought him more mainstream success. Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen joined Prine on 1991’s The Missing Years, which won Prine his first Grammy award. (He would win again for the folksy Fair and Square in 2005, and was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy award just this year).
Prine was a cancer survivor twice over. First came surgery for a neck cancer in 1998, which altered his appearance and his voice. (He would later claim he preferred his new deep rasp.) In 2013, Prine had surgery to remove cancerous cells from his lung. In both cases, he went back to work.
Yet as the years went by, his recorded output consisted more and more of covers and duets sessions. In 2018, he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years. Mostly co-writes, they felt like echoes of his past greatness, but the quirky “Lonesome Friends of Science” finds a familiar figure shrugging off predictions of the world’s end.
“Well, if it does, then that’s okay / ‘Cause I don’t live here anyway / I live down deep inside my head / Well, long ago I made my bed”
This is the John Prine we knew, living inside his head, or in the heads of characters nothing like him. With wit and whimsy, He wrote and sang of life’s travails, and never ceased to find an empathy so lacking in today’s world, a way to laugh while he whistled through the graveyard.
April 7th was a gutshot of a day. Along with the news of John Prine’s passing was word of another musical COVID-19 fatality, Hal Willner. Through his various projects, Willner’s mathematical connections redefined eclecticism, and exposed connections and paths we never knew existed. Prine and Willner join the likes of Manu Dibango, Ellis Marsalis, Adam Schlesinger, Wallace Roney, Bucky Pizzarelli, and other artists whose voices have already been silenced by the pandemic, and the thousands of others who have lost their lives to this terrible virus so far.
What the world will be after all of this remains to be seen. But it will be a world without John Prine, and that alone makes it a hard way to go.