Tuesday, April 07, 2020

John Prine, a songwriter for the ages and our times, dies

John Prine died in Nashville of covid-91, the coronavirus disease. He was 73. (Photo by The Associated Press)
There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes. ("Sam Stone")
Mostly they made love from ten miles away. ("Donald and Lydia")
Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see. ("Souvenirs")
She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire. ("Christmas in Prison").
The wind was blowing, especially through her hair. ("Lake Marie")
Stop wishin' for bad luck and knockin' on wood. ("Dear Abby")
Well done, hot dog bun, my sister's a nun. ("Illegal Smile")
Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, "Hello in there, hello."
. . . make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. ("Angel from Montgomery")
"Nobody but Prine could write like that." (Bob Dylan)

John Prine, who died Tuesday night of covid-19, was a songwriter for the ages and for our times. He knew rural America. The only full stanza in The New York Times' obituary was from "Paradise:"
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land;
Well, they dug for their coal 'til the land was forsaken;
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Post office and grocery at Paradise, Ky.
For many people in America's coalfields, that said it all. Prine, a Chicago native, wrote it about a town in "Western Kentucky, where my parents were born," one of his hundreds of plain but unusual lines. But that was the genesis of the story he wanted to tell, and Prine was a superb storyteller: evocative, somber, silly, thoughtful and surprising. His "ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favorite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others," William Grimes writes for the Times. Kristofferson and Steve Goodman were the magic slippers of what Prine called his "Cinderella story" of becoming a performer, retold by Annie Reuter in Billboard.

Prine "wrote rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music," Stephen L. Betts and Patrick Doyle write for Rolling Stone. "Prine helped shape the Americana genre that has gained popularity in recent years," and "explored a wide variety of musical styles, from hard country to rockabilly to bluegrass; he liked to say that he tried to live in a space somewhere between his heroes Johnny Cash and Dylan." He said his "songwriting hero" was Gordon Lightfoot. James Hohmann of The Washington Post notes that Prine is the latest of several musicians to die from covid-19.

Prine was "known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience," Betts and Doyle write, in a story worth reading. They quote Bonnie Raitt, who sang "Angel from Montgomery" into the American canon: "The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person."

"He sang his conversational lyrics in a voice roughened by a hard-luck life, particularly after throat cancer left him with a disfigured jaw," writes Michael Warren of The Associated Press, in a story well-sprinkled with Prine stanzas. But his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was his biggest hit, and early this year he won another Grammy award, for lifetime achievement. Warren's piece ends with a stanza from Prine's "When I Get to Heaven," which you can see and hear him perform on the "House of Strombo" show in 2018, with Gordon Lightfoot in the audience:

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?

That one, in spoken word and song, can be heard here. Prine's "Summer's End," with its chorus of "Come on home," is also a fitting farewell, and many in Kentucky would surely prefer this one:
When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven, with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.


Johnny J said...

A wonderful remembrance of a wonderful man, gifted artist, wise always beyond his years, a humble man, and one who spread so much joy throughout his too-short life. He will be missed, but never forgotten. Thank you Al Cross.

Frank said...

That's a beautiful tribute, Al.