A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to see John Prine, one of my favorite song-writers of all time. Today it's hard to imagine a world without Prine, but it has only been a few years that I've been privy to his brilliance. When I fell into the bluegrass scene about 3 years ago, I started to notice that some of my favorite tunes I heard at jams were Prine tunes, so I dug a little deeper and uncovered a landmine of incredible material.
John Prine is one of the greatest song-writers around, but he's not the household name that Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne is. In fact, when I bought my ticket back in January, I mentioned to many people how excited I was to see John Prine, which more often than not was met with a skeptical "who the fuck is that?!"
John Prine writes poetic, insightful folk music that is as listenable and catchy as pop. His work covers a vast range of sentiments, and he embodies each incredibly effectively. I think of him as being a little goofy, a tad corny and very clever- but his somber stuff is absolutely chilling.
John Prine's music tells us our own story with Midwestern simplicity and one-of-a-kind eloquence. Prine writes about America- America changing, America going to war, America coming home from war. He writes about blue collar folks and families, and the places we love evolving and disappearing. He writes songs about people growing together and people growing apart, marriage and divorce, being in love and falling out of love. He writes about people whose lives go by unnoticed, old people growing older and facing life's inevitabilities; he writes about the people who no one else writes about.
It’s a challenging task to try and explain why someone’s music speaks to you, and I’m going to make an effort - but mostly I’m going to just let Prine speak for himself. What follows is a run-down of some of my favorite of Prine’s work.
When first I think of Prine, I think of his sense of humor- he's clever, cheeky, and sometimes downright silly. He has songs that make me laugh out loud every time I hear them. His well-known "In Spite of Ourselves" is one of those- a couple celebrates their unlikely partnership (“against all odds, honey you’re the big door prize”).
In “Illegal Smile,” Prine pokes fun at people who take life too seriously- "You may see me tonight with an illegal smile, it don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while, won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone, I’m just trying to have me some fun.”
“Christmas in Prison” is a somber love story, tinged with humor: “It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good, they had turkey and pistols made out of wood… and I dream of her always, even when I don’t dream…”
“He Forgot That It Was Sunday” tells a rambling story that you can sing along to: “In a former life, in a hotel chair, I was Charlie Parker’s teddy bear…”
In spite of his propensity toward silliness, Prine writes some of the most poignant music I've heard. He has a unique ability to drive a message home with a few simple words. Even his most sad songs maintain a gleam of hope- they're not angry or depressing, just reflective. He observes and recounts but doesn't preach.
Prine says “when I was a kid, all I wanted to be when I grew up was an old person.” This is reflected in the fact that some of his best tunes are about growing older.
Both “Angel From Montgomery,” perhaps Prine’s most well known tune, and “Hello In There” are on Prine’s first album, which he wrote as a young man- clearly growing old was on his mind even then. They are somber tunes about couples entering old age together and the inevitabilities of the passage of time (“Just give me something that I can hold onto, to believe in this living is just a hard way to go”).
I wouldn't consider Prine a "political" musician in the way that someone like Billy Bragg is, but he has written several political tunes that are quite effective:
“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” is a tune about Prine’s time as a mailman during the Vietnam war.
Says Prine: “I retired this song for a while, but after our last president started using the flag to get everyone all riled up, I thought I’d bring it back.”
“A plastic flag with gum on the back fell out on the floor, well I picked it up and I ran outside, slapped it on a window shield, and if I could see old Betsy Ross, I’d tell her how good I feel: But your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore, it’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war, and Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for, and your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore”
"Sam Stone" is one of the darkest Prine tunes I’ve heard. It makes poignant comment on the state of veteran care in the U.S., and is relevant today as much as it was when he wrote it.
"There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose. Little pitchers have big ears, never stop to count the years, and sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”
Prine writes songs that are thoughtful and meandering, that you would listen to while taking a long train ride or going for an early morning run.
“Paradise” is a song about longing for the beauty of a place that has been imposed upon by modern life. It's simple and nostalgic and one of Prine's best-known tunes.
"When I die let my ashes float down the green river, let my soul float on up to the Rochester Dam. I'll be halfway to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from wherever I am."
“Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” is wandering, reflective and absolutely gorgeous.
Prine’s music is never dramatic. It doesn't call attention to itself, but it catches our attention with it's simple poignance. He has written music about divorce and heartbreak is utterly devastating:
"A clown puts his makeup on upside down. So instead of a smile he wears a frown. You may think I'm there when you put me down. But really I'm on the other side of town."
"All The Best" is a song about when you love someone for a long time and with everything you've got and then one day they change their mind for no good reason. The holidays roll around and you write them a Christmas card. It is simple and upbeat but completely heartbreaking and I cry every time I hear it. Every. Single. Time.
“I wish you love and happiness… I guess I wish you all the best. I wish you don’t do like I do… and never fall in love with someone like you”
“Far From Me” is a tune about young, unrequited love, a story of a waitress that he lusted for as an young man, who never returned his affections. Prine claims that "Far From Me" is his favorite of his own songs: "And the sky is black and still now, on the hill where the angels sing, ain’t it funny how a broken bottle looks a lot like a diamond ring. But it’s far, far from me.”
A sampling of Prine's tunes reflects a general cynicism. But then he writes songs that just radiate pure joy, like “The Glory of True Love” (“But Old Faithful's just a fountain, compared to the glory of true love.”) and “She is My Everything” (“She is my everything, from her sun-tanned shoulders down to the freckles on her wedding ring.” )
Some fun facts about John Prine:
1) In the 1960s, before his music career took off, Prine worked as a mailman in Chicago
2) Prine served in the army in West Germany during the Vietnam War era
3) "In Spite of Ourselves" was written for the movie "Daddy & Them," which Prine starred in, along with Billy Bob Thornton
4) In early 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck. He had major surgery to remove a substantial amount of diseased tissue, followed by six weeks ofradiation therapy. The surgery altered his vocals, and has added a gravelly tone to his voice, which resulted in the award-winning album "Fair and Square" (2005)
5) In 1974, Prine cowrote "You Never Even Called Me By My Name", with Steve Goodman, one of his frequent collaborators. David Allen Coe went on to make the song famous, and Prine refused song-writing credits, handing them over to Goodman, who bought Prine a juke-box with the royalty money
6) Prine was discovered by Kris Kristofferson, who remarked that Prine wrote songs so good that "we'll have to break his thumbs"
7) Prine currently resides in Nashville with his third wife, Fiona Whelan. They have three children.