Losing John Prine Still Hurts, Way Down
A Year Ago, Covid-19 Took Him To Paradise and Left His Fans Bereft
When my wife gasped and gave me the news as dusk fell on a dead-quiet spring evening, I wailed, then wept, then wept some more. She wept with me, then hugged my heaving shoulders.
On April 7, 2020, just a few weeks after the coronavirus brought the world to a halt, John Prine was gone.
Like everyone else, I’d heard a few days earlier that the Illinois-born singer-songwriter had been checked in to a Nashville hospital by Fiona, his wife of 25 years. He’d come down the stairs at their home, short of breath and complaining that he was exhausted, and Fiona feared the worst. She’d been through a lot with John – his two biggest health scares were surgery for neck cancer in 1996, which left his already distinctive voice raspier than ever, and lung cancer in 2013 – but held out hope that even after 73 years of his musician’s life, he’d find a way through and stick around for the next go-round on his beloved road. After all, his most recent album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, was his biggest seller yet, and our old friend was on a serious roll. Nearly 50 years after releasing is eponymous first record – the finest debut in popular music history, in my estimation, packed with classics like “Hello In There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery” – more people than ever were getting a dose of the deceptively simple, sly, self-effacing songcraft that helped hardcore fans like me laugh, cry and just plain stumble through every kind of life situation. He’d finally hit the big time, and his next tour of mid-sized venues was on the books.
It wasn’t to be. With his medical history, Prine was a walking textbook Covid-19 risk, and was soon on a ventilator. Fiona, Prime’s second wife and a Guinness-glass-half-full Irish lass if there ever was one, gamely posted upbeat Tweets while the rest of us dug out our vinyl and sang along in hope-against-hope solidarity. But within a few days, he succumbed, and the world was left with a giant void that only he could fill. Thank God we have five decades of his genre-defying music – it’s commonly thrown onto the “country” pile but even that ever-broadening definition can’t hold it, any more than “folk” or “Americana” can – to help keep the hole from getting any deeper.
Prine found me (not the other way around; I like to think he was heaven-sent) as a beer-swilling English major at California State University, Chico, courtesy of my next-door neighbors, Bill and Nancy Winn. They spun his first five albums constantly, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t discovered this guy until then. Nancy was partial to Bruised Orange, which serves up two of his finest lyrics back to back – the characteristically wise “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” and the playfully inscrutable “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.” But it was his second record, 1971’s Diamonds In The Rough, that put a spell on me right away with its stripped-down arrangements and bare-bones production (Prine and his brother recorded it on a shoestring budget). Prine puts forth one song of spare beauty after another – “Souvenirs,” “The Late John Garfield Blues,” “Billy The Bum,” “Clocks and Spoons, “Rocky Mountain Time” and the a cappella title tune, which I used to sing at the top of my lungs on the drive from Chico to see a buddy in aptly named Paradise, California, a town most famous for the fires that all but wiped it out a few years ago.
These were stories of whimsy and pain, joy and loneliness, laced with acute social commentary. In “The Great Compromise,” he adds to his anti-Viet Nam War canon with striking metaphors: His beloved country is a “sick woman” who leaves him at the all-American drive-in, where she “hopped into a foreign sports car.”
Well, you know I could have beat up that fellow
But it was her that had hopped into his car
Many times I’d fought to protect her
But this time she was goin' too far
Now some folks they call me a coward
’Cause I left her at the drive-in that night
But I'd druther have names thrown at me
Than to fight for a thing that ain't right
I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory
And awake in the dawn's early light
But much to my surprise
When I opened my eyes
I was a victim of the great compromise
Pretty strong stuff for a former mailman who never expected to make music his career. But the batch of early songs that made up his first record had so impressed the likes of critic Roger Ebert and songsmith Kris Kristofferson – both happened to catch him live, in Chicago and New York, respectively – that he quickly earned comparisons to Bob Dylan and soon had a deal with Atlantic Records in hand.
Prine didn’t catch on commercially, however, and after a stretch of late-’70s records that threaten to bury his always-strong song-smithing under layers of overproduction, he decided to start his own company, Oh Boy Records. His first album on that label, 1984’s Aimless Love, jettisoned studio slickness in favor of that straightforward sweet-and-sour style that true Priners knew and loved, with songs like “The Bottomless Lake” and “Unwed Fathers.” A couple years later, I caught Prine live for the first time, on a tiny stage at the back of a long-gone Reno Mexican restaurant called Hacienda Del Sol. It was just him, another guitarist-backup singer, and perhaps 50 friends.
Oh Boy powered Prine, and his growing fan base, through three decades of continued great songwriting. Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, from 1995, delivered another stone-cold classic story-song called “Lake Marie” (perhaps his most cinematic lyric), and spurred his biggest tour to date including at stop at Reno’s Pioneer Theater, this time with a full band; it’s a concert we’ll always rank among our favorites. He picked up a couple Grammys along the way – for 1991’s The Missing Years and 2005’s Fair and Square, his last album of original material until The Tree of Forgiveness, though even in those intervening years, he rolled out excellent cover albums, especially In Spite of Ourselves, a collection of duets with female singers including Trisha Yearwood, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
As I stand here with his music on shuffle, remembering the news that laid me low a long year ago, I hail Prine’s canon as a triumph not only of economical and fearlessly honest songwriting – clever but never cloying, sometimes silly, often weighty, but always delivered with a knowing wink – but of uncompromising and joyful humanity. The man brooked no bullshit and, with every line he sang in that wonderful smoky tenor, he cut to the heart of the matter: Yeah, life is absurd, but it’s also precious. And worth living to the hilt.
Still, John Prine was clear-eyed about his mortal fate, and everyone’s, to the very end. But he wasn’t about to call it quits there. In “When I Get to Heaven,” the final song of his final album, he lays it all out:
Yeah when I get to heaven
I'm gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time
After you’ve bought the farm?
And them I’m gonna go find my mom and dad
And good old brother Doug
Well I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug
I wanna see all my mama’s sisters
’Cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy
Bless their little hearts
And I always will remember these words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head”
I hope to prove him wrong
That is, when I get to heaven
’Cause then I’m gonna get a cocktail
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
Yeah this old man is goin’ to town
Thanks for the souvenirs, John. We’ll cherish them forever.