Remembering American Songwriting Legend John Prine (RIP): “A True Folk Singer in the Best Folk Tradition”

“A friend called our new world ‘a ghost ship,’” wrote Nick Cave in a recent install­ment of his Red Hand Files blog. “She has recent­ly lost some­one dear to her and rec­og­nizes acute­ly the pre­mon­i­to­ry feel­ing of a world about to be shat­tered.” The expe­ri­ence has become dis­tress­ing­ly com­mon. We have all begun to lose peo­ple dear, if not near, to us—artists tak­en by the dis­ease before their time like Bill With­ers, whose “Lean on Me” is now more poignant than ever. What­ev­er else we’re faced with as the glob­al epi­dem­ic pro­gress­es, we are enter­ing a peri­od of deep mourn­ing that Cave encour­ages his fans to treat with seri­ous respect.

To the list of those we mourn, we now must add leg­endary singer and song­writer John Prine, who died from COVID-19 com­pli­ca­tions yes­ter­day. Prine was an artist who didn’t so much achieve fame as an almost indis­pens­able pres­ence in Amer­i­can cul­ture that runs much deep­er and will last longer. He wrote songs so good, Kris Kristof­fer­son once joked “we’ll have to break his thumbs.” (Kristof­fer­son dis­cov­ered him play­ing in the Chica­go folk scene in 1971. Their meet­ing was, said Prine in 2019, “a Cin­derel­la sto­ry.”) Prine could count him­self among Bob Dylan’s favorite song­writ­ers, and was some­times called “the next Dylan.” (In his Twit­ter trib­ute, Bruce Spring­steen writes, “John and I were ‘New Dylans’ togeth­er in the ear­ly 70s.)

Prine wrote with more folksy good humor than Dylan, how­ev­er, a much cheerier the­o­log­i­cal bent, and with more con­cern for telling sto­ries with straight­for­ward emo­tion­al impact, with­out veer­ing into sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. But like Dylan, every song­writer in folk, blue­grass, and coun­try has paid homage to him as a muse and cov­ered his songs. Bon­nie Raitt made his “Angel in Mont­gomery” famous and called him “a true folk singer in the best folk tra­di­tion, cut­ting right to the heart of things, as pure and sim­ple as rain.”

As has many great folk singers, Prine paid ample trib­ute to his fore­bears: A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, “Cow­boy” Jack Clement, Tex Rit­ter.… build­ing a bridge between them and con­tem­po­rary song­writ­ers like the Avett Broth­ers, Bon Iver, Justin Townes Ear­le, and Jason Isbell, who have all cov­ered Prine songs. (See him with Sturgill Simp­son at the top.) He was indie before indie—breaking from the major labels in 1981 and estab­lish­ing his own label, Oh Boy Records. And he was gen­uine­ly “Amer­i­cana” in that he wrote of rur­al work­ing-class issues in a work­ing-class voice, inspired to pen his first major song “Par­adise” by the destruc­tion strip min­ing wrought upon his father’s Ken­tucky home­town.

“Par­adise” plays out like a John Sayles film, with local Green Riv­er ref­er­ences and images of shoot­ing pis­tols at snakes and pop bot­tles at “the aban­doned old prison down by Air­drie Hill.” The song’s third verse depicts the mind­less vio­lence of strip min­ing: “they tor­tured the tim­ber and stripped all the land,” he sings, “then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” It was the first song he record­ed for his self-titled 1971 debut and estab­lished a long tra­di­tion of protest music both wist­ful and wit­ty, like the peren­ni­al­ly rel­e­vant “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heav­en Any­more,” which tells flag-wav­ing chau­vin­ists, “They’re already over­crowd­ed from your dirty lit­tle war.” He tells the sto­ry of writ­ing the song all the way back in 1968 in the live per­for­mance from 2010’s In Per­son & On Stage below.

Prine also wrote from the per­spec­tive of a vet­er­an (he served in the army in the 60s), whose coun­try had let him down in the Viet­nam deba­cle and sub­se­quent bloody mis­ad­ven­tures. In “The Great Com­pro­mise,” he used the alle­go­ry of a jilt­ed lover to express great dis­il­lu­sion­ment.

Many times I’d fought to pro­tect her
But this time she was goin’ too far
Now some folks they call me a cow­ard
Cause I left her at the dri­ve-in that night
But I’d druther have names thrown at me
Than to fight for a thing that ain’t right

I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glo­ry
And awake in the dawn’s ear­ly light
But much to my sur­prise
When I opened my eyes
I was a vic­tim of the great com­pro­mise

The song’s title and refrain ref­er­ence the 1787 Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion, sug­gest­ing that part of his awak­en­ing to the country’s flaws includes a recog­ni­tion that they had been built in from the start. “Sam Stone,” his por­trait of a Viet­nam vet dying slow from hero­in addic­tion, a song once cov­ered by John­ny Cash, per­fects the direct­ness and sim­ple lyri­cism of coun­try bal­lads to dev­as­tat­ing effect: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the mon­ey goes/Jesus Christ died for noth­in I sup­pose.”

Songs like “Sam Smith” and “Par­adise” grab hold with images and obser­va­tions that crys­tal­ize the kind of down-and-out Amer­i­can suf­fer­ing that fea­tures all the time in best­selling non­fic­tion books and long­form arti­cles, but nev­er gets addressed in any mean­ing­ful way. But Prine could also light­en up—a lot—with com­ic-roman­tic gems like “In Spite of Our­selves,” writ­ten for a film in which he starred as Bil­ly Bob Thornton’s broth­er. He record­ed the song as a duet with Iris DeMent, the title track for an album of cov­ers with oth­er famous women coun­try singers like Emmy­lou Har­ris, Lucin­da Williams, and Pat­ty Love­less.

Full of pro­fane, down­home humor (“he’s got more balls than a big brass mon­key”), the tune is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of one of Prine’s many song­writ­ing per­son­ae in a career impos­si­ble to sum up in a neat and tidy way. Suf­fice it to say that Prine’s death from COVID-19 at age 73—after his many decades cel­e­brat­ing and lament­ing the strug­gles of ordi­nary peo­ple and lam­bast­ing the greed and bel­liger­ence of the U.S. gov­ern­ment and corporations—underlines the plain truths of his songs with trag­ic irony. Prine sur­vived can­cer surgery in 1998 and the removal of a lung in 2013, yet he con­tin­ued to per­form into his final years, releas­ing a fol­low-up to In Spite of Our­selves in 2016 and his final album, The Tree of For­give­ness, in 2018, a “trunk­ful of supreme­ly gen­er­ous Amer­i­can music,” wrote Ian Crouch in a New York­er review. See his NPR Tiny Desk per­for­mance from 2018 below.

Anoth­er writer who had seen and doc­u­ment­ed what Prine had over the years might have grown bit­ter. But we can mourn his death know­ing that he seems to have had lit­tle unfin­ished busi­ness with his god or his fel­low human beings. “When I get to heav­en,” he speak-sings in the intro to one of his final record­ings, “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?” We can hope, at least, if we’re so inclined, that it’s at least a kinder place than the world Prine left behind. And we can be grate­ful he left a lega­cy of time­less music that always seems to speak to the sad­ness, dis­ap­point­ment, anger, and raw, in-spite-of-it-all tragi­com­e­dy of the Amer­i­can predica­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bill Mur­ray Explains How He Was Saved by John Prine      

Tom Pet­ty Takes You Inside His Song­writ­ing Craft

Bob Dylan Releas­es a Cryp­tic 17-Minute Song about the JFK Assas­si­na­tion: Hear a “Mur­der Most Foul”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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