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John Prine Tribute – John Prine Was Always There, the World Didn’t Know How Lucky It Was
John Prine has plans for the afterlife. “I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale,” the folk icon sang, playfully and plainly, over a kazoo and a barroom piano late on his 2018 LP, Tree of Forgiveness. “Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” Prine, who died Tuesday at the age of 73, never intended for the set to serve as his last missive, though it certainly fits as an undeniable final note; a testament to everything he did so well in song. “I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl,” he adds on the cut, all heart and humor. “’Cause this old man is going to town.”
The curious drink, called a Handsome Johnny, is certainly flowing somewhere now.
When Prine, American music’s most unassuming giant, was hospitalized near the end of March, suffering from complications due to COVID-19, it was hard not to believe that he’d pull through. After all, the artist, who counts Bob Dylan among his superfans, had already survived so much: throat cancer, the surgery for which removed a large portion of his neck and some of his vocal power, and lung cancer, which took a portion of his left lung—not to mention several drug-fueled decades.
Over the last week, I’ve tried pinpointing when exactly I came to his music, but the thing about John Prine is that he was always there. His 18 studio albums, the first of which released back in 1971, weave irreplaceable threads through the last five decades of American music. A great champion of female talent, he’s been one-half of maddeningly good duets with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Trisha Yearwood, and Lucinda Williams. The list goes on, of course, spanning generations and genres.
John Prine died Tuesday due to complications from COVID-19.
Rich FuryGetty Images
He popped up, constantly, in the tales of others. Musicians he collaborated with who recalled Prine sending them a Christmas tree—his favorite decoration—as thanks. Greats, like Johnny Cash, who placed him on his own personal Mount Rushmore of music. Kris Kristofferson, who saw him perform in Chicago and then invited him to perform with him in New York. Bob Dylan, who had memorized the words to his debut album before it ever came out.
He was even present where he was, well, not actually present. In the liner notes for Iris DeMent’s debut, Infamous Angel, he wrote about shedding a tear into his pork chops as he listened to her sing: “DeMent starts singing about ‘Mama’s Opry,’ and being the sentimental follow I am, I got a lump in my throat and a tear fell from my eyes to the hot oil. Well, the oil popped out and burnt my arms as if the pork chops were trying to say, ‘Shut up, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.’”
How lucky we were.
The songwriter grew up in blue collar Maywood, Illinois and wrote many of his early tunes, like “Donald and Lydia” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” while on the job as a mailman. But despite his suburban surroundings, his emotional roots burrowed in a small town in Kentucky known as Paradise, where his father was raised. “One time I went to school and they asked us all to find out where our roots were,” Prine recalled to Rolling Stone in 2017. “It’s goin’ around the class, and the kids were going, ‘I’m Swedish-German’ or ‘I’m English-Irish.’ They got to me and I said, ‘Pure Kentuckian.’”
Childhood visits to the Bluegrass State became the basis for his 1971 cut “Paradise,” housed on his self-titled debut. The country staple has been covered by the likes of John Denver, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, and John Fogerty on its trip through American music. And while it was inspired by coddled together memories of returning to the land where his parents were raised, it was in his inability to ever really visit the place from their stories that transforms the tale of nostalgic longing into an expansive meditation on environmentalism and progress.
“Well, I’m sorry son,” his father tells him of the long-since ravaged mining town, “but you’re too late in asking/Mister Peabody’s coal train hauled it away.”
In 1966, Prine was drafted into the Army, though he wasn’t sent to Vietnam. While he was stationed in West Germany rather than the frontlines, the experience inspired his best known and most devastating song: “Sam Stone.” About a tormented soldier who seeks solace from what he’s seen in morphine, I’ve made it through the plainspoken ballad so few times without a sheen to my eyes. I certainly won’t anytime soon.
Prine’s magic, which we see in “Stone” and “Paradise,” but also hundreds of others, like “Jesus the Missing Years,” “Space Monkey,” or “Sour Grapes,” which he wrote at the age of 14, was his ability to fashion his lyrics out of details most never noticed. They’d refract through his pen, his wit, his penchant for surrealism and by the time they made it to your ears, things so tiny, so easy to ignore, were suddenly obvious. It would be incorrect, unfair even, to call Prine an optimist. But his knack for humor can change the way you see the world for the better. I hope you let it.
Bonne Raitt, who took Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to a new class of fame when she covered it in 1974, probably said it best: “The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute mixed with his homespun sense of humor—it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.” (John Mellencamp, speaking onstage when Prine was awarded the PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award in 2018, is a close second. “Who writes songs like that?” he wondered. “God and John Prine.”)
Bonnie Raitt took Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to a new class of fame when she covered the track in 1974.
Denise SofrankoGetty Images
As tributes from bold-faced names like Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stephen King, and Stephen Colbert flood the internet, it’s hard to believe that Prine spent the majority of his career as an under-realized gem. But he did. Somehow, even if you came to him in 2018 when he released his final, perfect album, something I truly hope you listen to today, it was still possible to feel like you were tapping into a new underground scene. (Tree of Forgiveness debuted in the Top 5 on the all-genre Billboard 200 charts, a career-high for the artist.) His contributions to American music are innumerable, though they are best heard in the generation of artists he so happily mentored and collaborated with, like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, and Tyler Childers.
He is survived by his wife, Fiona Whelan, and their sons Jody Whelan, Tommy, and Jack. I will survive, as I have now for many years, with his remarkable catalog.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.