John Prine performs at Bonnaroo Arts & Music Festival in 2019. Photo courtesy of Emma Delevante.
By Claire Smith
John Prine, beloved country folk singer-songwriter, died at 73 due to coronavirus complications on Tuesday, April 7, in Nashville. Prine’s music career spans almost fifty years of social commentary, wit, and gifted storytelling.
While performing “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” John Mellencamp asked, “Who writes songs like that? Two people come to mind—God and John Prine.” “Sabu” is one of Prine’s stranger songs, a story of a successful Indian child-actor-turned-lonely-starving-artist travelling the Midwest to promote failed movies, tenderly sung over light guitar picking and clarinet. That song comes from Prine’s fifth album Bruised Orange. It’s an album about getting lost, wandering through life and love, and trying to find your way in a world where things can happen arbitrarily, out of your control. Not a bad one to return to now.
Maybe it’s because I was raised to feel a certain reverence for the quiet, grainy-voiced wisdom of John Prine, but I found myself returning to his music in the days following his hospitalization. American music has lost a valuable and vigorous voice—I mean, come on, Prine released Tree of Forgiveness at 71 after two battles with cancer, an amazing album with depth and perspective after all those years of music-making.
Prine’s songs, though they sometimes tell absurd and hilarious stories, are tempered by a deep sense of the common experiences that unite us and our desire for love and meaning. Particularly important now, Prine’s music speaks to some of the unavoidable fears we are confronting during the coronavirus pandemic: feeling lonely, feeling lost, facing death. Probably the most famous example of John Prine’s acute awareness of loneliness is “Hello in There,” based on visiting old couples on his childhood paper route:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
This song, originally written when Prine was just 24, had a particular resonance when he sang it in his old age. Here was a young man turned to an older, wiser, but lonelier man, who related to the loneliness of his story in a much different way now. Just like Prine, we are all facing isolation from a new perspective. Hopefully, like him, we can learn something about ourselves along the way.
I was lucky enough to see Mr. Prine perform at Bonnaroo in 2019. I had to drag my friend to Prine’s set that night, but once we settled in, her annoyance at having to listen to some old, unknown country music singer (“John Prime? Who?”) dissipated. I don’t remember every song in that set, but I remember smiling a lot. Something about the way John Prine sings, so wryly but still so full of happiness and life, made it hard not to smile. “Egg & Daughter Nite” comes to mind, where I got to hear John Prine scatting in his husky voice, a simple joy I didn’t know I needed.
But the song that sticks with me now is “When I Get to Heaven.” One time as a kid, my parents let me sit in on the adult Sunday school class at church. The teacher asked the class the first thing they would do when they got to heaven. One lady said she would find her mother and sit on her lap like when she was a girl. The teacher casually countered with, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a scooter and riding out to the edge of the universe.”
Prine’s song borders more on the universe-hoping scooter plan. “Ain’t the afterlife grand?” he asks, before his refrain outlines his main plans for heaven: “And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale. / Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” Prine reckoned with death and loss in a way that still found room for joy and appreciation for the simple details of life.
Now, John Prine’s music comes through to me in little memories I have from Sewanee. A rainy fall afternoon where a Prine playlist hummed over the speaker while I read on the Stirling’s porch swing. A nighttime car ride on the way from Mountain Goat singing a duet of “In Spite of Ourselves.” My friends belting out “Paradise” and strumming guitar on a beach trip.
John Prine’s appeal is that he could approach simple, everyday moments with humor, empathy, and clarity. He said he looked out for “the in-between spaces,” those overlooked moments of life that we take for granted. Right now, we all return to the little things, the in-between spaces; to stowed-away moments that stick out in our memory from times past, to the little comforts we find in our new normal, to friendships and plans and hopes that will persist, against all odds.