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There was some of the texture of a John Prine song to the course of the past week and a half’s news about his health, culminating in the great songwriter’s death Tuesday at 73 from complications of COVID-19. There was the first dramatic news March 29, when his wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, let fans know her husband was hospitalized in critical condition. There was a calming interlude the next day when she said on Twitter John was “stable,” until she added some hours later that “stable” did not mean “improving.” A note of political protest came April 5 when Whelan Prine wrote that she was “incensed” by the U.S. president’s “ramblings” about the pandemic. And finally, the stark unavoidable end.
Prine’s music was full of such twists through pessimism and hope and resignation, his stories conveying grim truths that had silver linings that in turn had dark undersides. His tools might have been the plain syllables of American everyday language, which he sang in a modest drawl and often braided in loopy rhymes, and the fundaments of the nation’s folk, country, and rock ’n’ roll traditions, which he played at a just-beyond-basics level, with two-fingered picking and three kinds of strums. But his scope was always unpredictably expansive. Like a contemporary Robert Frost or Mark Twain, his public image might sometimes have been reduced to the homespun teller of tall tales and eternal verities, especially in the last few decades of his life, as he accumulated honors like his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year. But his output, like those writers’, was stranger, more cussed, and less comfortable than the avuncular stereotypes.
If the tale of his passing were a John Prine song, however, there’d also be some comic relief, some odd detail or diverting turn of phrase that let the observer in on a larger cosmic joke. There’s nothing existentially amusing here. Just the sense of a creative spirit lost when his people needed him, and the unfairness (though also the cold logic) of his being overcome after all he’d already survived. Prine might make light by singing something like “They couldn’t kill me with cancer—[spoken] twice—so they got me with the flu.” Except much more clever and lovely than that. And except that, despite Donald Trump’s many misleading suggestions otherwise, this wasn’t the flu.
Prine grew up in the Maywood suburb of Chicago with parents who were proud Southern transplants from Paradise, Kentucky (later the subject of one of his best-known songs). His vivid imagination was a constant distraction, and he struggled with school and extracurriculars—aside from a brief stretch as a promising high school gymnast, a surprising image for a man who later seemed unsuited to any pastime less sedentary than snooker or fishing. He graduated unsure what to do with his life, got a job as a postal carrier, and then was drafted in the midst of the Vietnam War. He was lucky enough—and, as he later commented, white enough—that he got stationed instead as a mechanic in Germany. On base, he took back up the songwriting hobby he started in his early teens. He continued when he shipped back to Chicago and resumed his mail route, a job that allowed plenty of mental space to conjure words and melodies.
It was only on a dare from friends that Prine stepped to the mic at the Fifth Peg club one night in 1970. What a moment it must have been. The three songs Prine played were “Paradise” (now a bluegrass standard) and the tunes later known as “Hello in There” (recognized as one of the great songs about old age, which Prine somehow wrote at 23) and “Sam Stone,” a portrait of a Vietnam vet who’s come home hooked on heroin, with its chorus, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/ Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.” As Prine frequently told the story later, when he finished, the room was silent, and he figured he’d bombed. Then, after a long few seconds, the crowd erupted in loud applause. The Fifth Peg offered him a weekly gig on the spot. Within a couple of months, he was headlining whole weekends, the likes of Kris Kristofferson were dropping by, Roger Ebert wrote a rave in the Chicago Sun-Times, and soon Prine was signing to Atlantic Records in New York. He had finally quit the post office.
“Singing mailman” wasn’t a bad publicity hook, but what had people talking most was the Vietnam War character study that seemed to scathe all sides, including other protesters. On their duet “Please Let Me Go Round Again” on Swamp Dogg’s latest album (Prine’s last official lifetime release, I think), the two musicians get chatty over the groove in the track’s back 40, and the Virginia freaky-R&B stalwart thanks Prine for “Sam Stone,” because Swamp Dogg recorded his own superb version back in 1972. Prine’s hero Johnny Cash was covering it live in concert at the same time, though the devout Christian country star altered that Jesus line. Prine’s eponymous debut album saw him greeted at the time as one of the 1970s’ many “new Bob Dylans”—in fact, Dylan is a longtime Prine fan—and much of its track list remained permanent Prine concert staples. That also includes the astonishing “Angel From Montgomery,” which Bonnie Raitt would render a classic, and “Illegal Smile,” the tune that would endear him to weed smokers everywhere.
But it would be a long time before anything in Prine’s career came so easily and smoothly again. As happened to a lot of left-field singer-songwriters of the era (such as Townes Van Zandt), Prine had record companies and producers impose all kinds of arrangements and sounds that never got his songs much more radio play but often did succeed at cluttering them up in a way that would date fast. Prine’s own imaginative distractibility and often hard-partying lifestyle also meant that songs and shows weren’t always at his highest standard. Still, with nearly every album, he would add evergreens to a repertoire that by his later years was as rich and deep as almost any songwriter’s you could name. And then, in the early 1980s, he made the bold move of forming his own independent record label, Oh Boy, which freed him from creative interference as well as the machinations of the mainstream record business. After that, albums such as 1991’s The Missing Years and 1999’s country-duets record In Spite of Ourselves (its title cut with Iris Dement was an all-timer) earned Prine some of his best reviews and sales.
He also found, after two divorces, a stable partnership in both love and business with Fiona, who immigrated from Ireland to marry him in 1996. She arrived with one child, whom Prine adopted, and they had two more (his first). These domestic duties seemed to center and settle him in middle age. Up until then, he would later say, he hadn’t really known how to do anything with himself except for writing songs.
It’s awful that it was only a year or so later that Prine was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer of the neck, requiring an operation that left his voice and appearance permanently changed. (Thankfully, at the same time, George Strait was taking Prine’s song “I Just Want to Dance With You” to No. 1 on the country charts, which covered his medical expenses.) But it was also after Prine’s illness and recovery that he seemed to attain fully the eminence with upcoming generations of musicians and fans that he’d enjoy the rest of his life, as witness all the tributes that have been paid since his final sickness and death. In the 21st century it seemed to me that he was wanted and welcome everywhere. In part there was a whole new genre or subgenre called Americana in which he was recognized as a founding father. Plus, while the post-operative Prine had to deal with an even creakier and less reliable voice than ever and a degree of disfigurement, on him these read like marks of earned knowledge, scars that mirrored the uncanny wisdom that had always inhabited his songs. (His later treatment for lung cancer was caught at an earlier stage and more easily dispatched.) His unauthorized biographer Eddie Huffman, in 2015’s John Prine: In Spite of Himself, recalls seeing Prine introducing “Hello in There” in concert in 2013 by saying, “I kinda grew up thinking I wanted to be an old person.” He paused. “Voila.” And that age hung on him like a custom suit.
His most recent album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness (his first of original material since 2005), was the highest-charting of Prine’s career. And a generally undiminished one in quality, with songs such as “Summer’s End,” “Lonesome Friends of Science” (in which Prine shrugs that if the world comes to an end, it’s OK with him, because he never lived there so much as in his own head), and “When I Get to Heaven” (in which he fantasizes about taking up all his past vices again in the afterlife, like smoking “a cigarette that’s 9 miles long”).
Unlike for a lot of artists, for Prine these themes about mortality, death, and the great beyond were not just a late-stage preoccupation. They always exerted a gravitational pull on the clotheslines and barflies and fly swatters and carpenters and Donalds and Lydias and other earthly things that populated the extended John Prine universe. In part that was a legacy of his family’s Southern Christian, gospel, and country heritage, in which heaven’s always either just a step or a sin away—recall that the clan’s lost homeland was literally called Paradise. Prine’s metaphysical bent was probably also a byproduct of coming of age amid the spiritual questing of the late 1960s and early 1970s, though on his first album’s “Pretty Good,” Prine sang skeptically, “Actually all them gods is just about the same.” A couple of albums later, he made a musical plea to a young cultist of the kind that was all over the news of the day: “Come back to us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard.”
But it also must have to do with the fact that his dad, Bill Prine, died at age 57 of a heart attack, just weeks before his son’s first album would be released. (The senior Prine did get to hear “Paradise” before that, though, listening to it from the other room so he could pretend it was on the jukebox.) Prine’s 1975 album Common Sense would have a track about his father called “He Was in Heaven Before He Died,” which includes these lines: “The sun can play tricks with your eyes on the highway/ The moon can lay sideways till the ocean stands still/ But a person can’t tell his best friend he loves him/ Till time has stopped breathing—you’re alone on the hill.”
A couple of years before that, though, Prine issued more of a howl (and howler) of protest against the whole life-and-death racket, with “Please Don’t Bury Me,” in which he does organ donation one better and begs for nose-to-tail recycling: “Please don’t bury me down in that cold, cold ground/ No, I’d rather have ’em cut me up and pass me all around/ Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes/ And the deaf can take both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.” (He goes on to dream up uses for a bunch of his other parts, including passing along his arms to the Venus de Milo.)
In a 2018 interview in a beautifully written Pitchfork article by Jayson Greene, Prine said, “I guess I just process death differently than some folks. 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.”
That last sentence is about as John Prine as a set of words can get. The song about death in Prine’s canon that comes closest to matching it for me is his second album’s “Late John Garfield Blues,” which weaves a kind of late-night streetscape of the soul around (for hard-to-decipher reasons) the figure of the mesmerizing 1940s actor who died of a heart attack at only 39 after being blacklisted. The whole song is breathtaking, but it was the final verse especially that came to mind after learning Prine was ill.
I’m going away to the last resort
In a week or two real soon,
Where the fish don’t bite but once a night,
By the cold light of the moon.
The horses scream, the nightmares dream,
And the dead men all wear shoes,
’Cause everybody’s dancin’
Those late John Garfield blues.
That’s a much scarier place than the bucolic vision of “When I Get to Heaven,” but our current moment makes it feel just as realistic. What matters is that Prine’s repertoire had room for both.
As Prine said to Pitchfork, the personal associations every fan had with his songs were the only kinds of charts where he regularly had hits. For me, that was with a friend circle among whom “Angel From Montgomery” became a singalong anthem in my early 20s in Toronto—probably because of this standout local cover version at the time. It’s a complex song about gender and ambition and frustration, but I hear it as death-haunted too—“to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Its cryptic angel seems to be the lived-too-fast-died-too-young Hank Williams, but as my group loses some of our number, as we did painfully last year, we reunite to sing the song again, and it stretches to accommodate more angels. Prine’s finest music has more than enough capacity for every listener’s “shadows!” (as he dramatically stage-whispers in the mysterious “Lake Marie”).
But there is also enough space in Prine’s cosmology for one of the “Illegal Smile” crowd to counterpropose their own vision of paradise—to bring, after his own generous manner, comic relief. When I want to remember Prine without so much regret, pain, or rancor, what I might often turn to is not one of his songs, but a younger artist’s tune about him. Kacey Musgraves wrote it early in her career when she could never imagine that one day she’d meet and share stages with its subject—just like Prine himself could never imagine in 1970 that in a few years Dylan would join him onstage merely to play harmonica. But here she is singing it with Prine at her side, in 2015. And wherever you may stand on the great beyond, it testifies to all the magnetism and dark matter and spooky action at a distance that radiates from Prine’s work that it would move a young artist as gifted and searching as Musgraves herself to sing:
I ain’t one to knock religion, though it’s always knockin’ me.
Always runnin’ with the wrong crowd, right where I want to be.
And I ain’t good at being careful. I just say what’s on my mind,
Like my idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine.
And I will give that a full-hearted amen.