Home Music Revisit: John Prine: John Prine

Revisit: John Prine: John Prine

When John Prine died of COVID-19 earlier this year, there was no shortage of remembrances hailing him as a “songwriter’s songwriter.” He was not a generation-defining musician—not one whose songs functioned as benchmarks of a bygone era, like those of Bob Dylan or Creedence Clearwater Revival—nor was he a tragic figure who died young, years before his songs found wider recognition. He did not write hits. Prine was a grinder, one whose audience grew slowly, but grew, and grew more devoted, with every new collection of songs that he wrote, even as he left the major label system and began his own independent label, Oh Boy Records. That audience included countless small-town Americans like Donald and Lydia and Sam Stone, but Prine’s knack for writing songs that wove together humor and empathy and mortality won over some of the finest artists of his era: Kris Kristofferson attended one of his early Chicago gigs, and was so impressed that he invited the newcomer to open for him, which put him on Atlantic Records’ radar; Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez and John Denver, among many others, covered his songs; Dylan himself appeared onstage with him one night, playing harmonica, with the crowd none the wiser. And in recent years, he became a collaborator and mentoring figure to younger songwriters like Kurt Vile, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves and Robin Pecknold.

The existence of Prine’s career feels like a small miracle—like something Prine might himself have written about if he weren’t allergic to melodrama. Born 10 miles outside of Chicago in 1946, Prine spent two years after high school working for the Postal Service, followed by two years in the Army in West Germany, followed by three more years as a mailman, writing songs all the while. Egged on by a friend, Prine sang a few of these songs at an open mic night at Chicago’s Fifth Peg in 1970—“Hello in There,” “Paradise,” “Sam Stone”—to a captivated audience. A weekly arrangement at the Fifth Peg soon followed, and a glowing review from none other than Roger Ebert catapulted him to the center of Chicago’s folk scene. A few months after that, Kristofferson heard him play, and a few months after that, Prine was down in Memphis, recording his debut album with the Memphis Boys, who’d backed up Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield.

It is quite possible that that album, John Prine, would be just as beloved—a bit harder to find, perhaps, but no less masterful—if Prine had gone back to his old mail route and never recorded another note of music afterward. He wrote dozens of perfect songs in the decades that followed, but Prine would never make an album that was as perfect, from the edge of Side A to the center of Side B, as John Prine. And while the songs therein would be carried further and wider when sung by other voices, they sounded best when sung by Prine himself, in his Midwestern bleat.

Those three songs that Prine sang at his first open mic remain his three best songs; two of them are also, perhaps not coincidentally, among his saddest. “Hello in There” renders the loneliness of old age so poignantly that it beggars belief that Prine was all of 23 when he wrote it. If you’ve ever been a frequent visitor to a senior living community, as I have been, you’ve met people like Loretta, who doesn’t do much talking, only staring out her window, or Rudy, who has nothing much to do but tell people he’s got nothing much to do. It builds to a chorus that makes you want to call your oldest living relative and tell them how much you love them:

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.

Sadder still is “Sam Stone.” Years before the specter of the Vietnam War cast a dark shadow over American popular culture (take your pick: Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, First Blood, Full Metal Jacket), “Sam Stone” painted a crushing portrait of the war’s lasting effects on those who fought in it. With each verse, Prine takes us a little deeper into the titular character’s destruction—his return home and descent into opiate addiction, his poverty and turn to thievery, his deserting his family and eventual demise. But the song isn’t a tearjerker in the way that “Hello in There” is. It isn’t a protest song, castigating the U.S. government for its failure to take care of its veterans, and it isn’t even an explicitly anti-drug song. The way Prine sings it—even its bleakest and most famous lines, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/ Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose”—it could almost be a lullaby. It’s still depressingly relevant now, nearly two decades into another just-as-pointless war, and one would think that the country would be in a better place if more people listened to “Sam Stone” than “Born in the U.S.A.”

John Prine does have a protest song, and a damn good one, in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” a hilarious ditty that takes the piss out of anyone who equates patriotism with the size or number of flags that they fly. But Prine, for the most part, on John Prine and across his discography, was far less interested in writing songs about politics than about people. He was often funny, ad-libbing the lines “Well done/ Hot dog bun/ My sister’s a nun” at the end of “Illegal Smile” for no other reason than they rhymed with “fun,” and his twangy voice had a way of making even things that weren’t funny sound funny, too. More than that, he was relatable; you probably know a couple like the hippies in “Spanish Pipedream,” who went to the country to raise a family and a garden. But you also probably know a couple like the ones in “Far from Me” (by Prine’s own admission his favorite of his songs) or “Angel from Montgomery,” on which he laments “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/ And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?” Humor was never a guarantee of a happy ending in a John Prine song.

Dylan once praised Prine’s songwriting as “pure Proustian existentialism.” For those of us who don’t read Proust, this is to say that Prine’s songs had a way of evoking your own memories and experiences. This is obviously heard in “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone,” but even the smallest details on John Prine blow the songs wide open. In “Far from Me,” the singer’s humming along to the radio feels like the catalyst for the dissolution of a romantic relationship, even before Prine gets to the line “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/ Looks just like a diamond ring?” There’s the pitilessness with which Prine sings of Jimmy’s fate on “Six O’Clock News” that makes his invitations to “spend the night with me” sound nihilistic. And then there’s the relationship between the titular characters on “Donald and Lydia” that Prine builds up to for three minutes before undoing it all in a single line, revealing there wasn’t a relationship at all.

There’s only one song on John Prine on which Prine really draws on his own memories and experiences, rather than creating characters. “Paradise,” one of the first songs he ever played and the lone song he recorded before the Memphis sessions, is named for the Kentucky town from which his father came, which Prine’s family would visit when he was a child. “And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County? Down by the river where Paradise lay,” Prine sings as his brother Dave plays a mournful fiddle. Only the town doesn’t exist anymore: “Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking/ Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” Still, Prine remembers this place, “where the air smelled like snakes,” before the Peabody Coal Company stripped the surrounding lands for coal and timber, rendering the town inhospitable, and he wishes for his ashes to be carried away by the Green River. When Prine died earlier this year, his family brought him back to Paradise one last time.

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