Photo: Wall Street Journal
Late Tuesday night, the music world lost an irreplaceable icon. At the age of 73, legendary singer/songwriter John Prine lost his life due to complications from the COVID-19 virus.
In the past couple of years, we've seen the passing of a lot of musical geniuses. From Prince to David Bowie and Tom Petty, it keeps happening and it never gets any easier. For me though, John Prine has been the most difficult loss to date. I don't think I've ever cried so much for someone who I'd never actually met (45 minutes of ugly bawling in my bed with his music as the soundtrack), but I think that was one of the most magical things about John Prine. He may have possessed a writing talent that was given to him personally by God himself, but he never lost his "average Joe" persona. Everything about how he carried himself and interacted with the world around him; he just seemed like the kind of guy anyone could get along with and everyone could be around.
Although there are songs of his that I can remember from a young age, I didn't truly dive into his work until early on in my college years. One of my best friends, who had been raised on his music, sent me two albums of his to listen to - his self-titled debut, and the '78 classic Bruised Orange. I immediately became obsessed. Those records took over my car speakers everywhere I drove.
As a songwriter myself (not a great one, but aspiring to be), I was blown away at his ability to so seamlessly blend the humorous and the painful. One song on the record could make you laugh out loud, and the next could make you cry; sometimes they could even be the same song.
To say this is a heavy loss to the music community is an understatement. I had a friend who called me and said, "If anything's gonna make the people of Nashville take this pandemic more seriously, it's this."
And he's right. John Prine is around actual God status here in Nashville, and rightfully so. He's earned every bit of it.
I was fortunate enough to get to see John Prine live before his death. In 2018, when he released what would be his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness, the iconic Nashville record store Grimey's had a hell of a promotion. If you pre-ordered the album through them, you got a ticket to go see Prine for the release show at The Basement East. I got to Grimey's a little over an hour before they opened that day, and I still wasn't even close to the first person in line. By the time they opened to start letting people in, the line had stretched down around the corner and to the end of the block. When I got to the register, I bought four copies of the record, knowing without a doubt I'd find suitors for the tickets.
The night of the show, I showed up to the Basement East ecstatic. I saw tons of familiar faces, all sharing the same excitement for what was sure to be an intimate and special show. When he walked onto the stage, the vibe of the noisy dive bar immediately changed from chatty drinkers to attentive worshipers. It was incredible to see that power that he commanded before even playing the first note.
He walked on stage, just him and his acoustic guitar, and opened up with one of my all-time favorites from his debut, "Six O' Clock News". The song is a morbid ballad about a story Prine saw on the news. The verses tell the story of "the kid with two first names" and his untimely end, while the chorus refrains back to a heartbreaking plea against loneliness, "Come on baby, spend the night with me." To open a show with such a downer of a song is a hell of a power move. Not a lot of people could pull it off. But to see it all take place, and understand it for what it was, was something truly special. This is a man who has lived a hell of a life that was not always pretty and not always nice. Alone on stage with nothing but his smoker-worn voice and sparse acoustic guitar playing, Prine delivered this song with such a raw emotion, no one could have turned their attention if they tried.
After he finished the song, he joked into the mic, "Sorry I sounded a little rough on that one, I'm not used to singing this early in the evening. But trust me, I'll keep getting better as I go along." I was perfectly satisfied by his delivery, but somehow, he truly did make good on his promise. With each song, he got more and more comfortable, and blew my mind a little more each time. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible live shows I've ever experienced.
As you can tell, I could go on for days and albums telling you all of the great songs John Prine has written. For readers' sakes, I thought ten would be a good round number to make a list of songs. To make sure I didn't lean to heavily on any one album (because trust me, I could make a hell of a case for ten songs just on his first album) I decided to pick two songs from my five favorite Prine albums. Enjoy.
John Prine (1971)
The debut album is far and above the hardest for me to narrow down to two tracks; partly because it's what got me into him and the first place, but also because every song is actual perfection. "Sam Stone" has to be a standout though. One of his most well-written stories, this song is a bleak portrait of a veteran who returns from a hellish life in war, only to find his post-war life is even tougher than the one he left. The title character returns from war and falls into addiction to ease the pain from the traumas he's still recovering from. The song is a poignant reminder that even when our soldiers come back from war, their fight is long from over. It's rounded out with the memorable chorus line "Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios."
An often overlooked song from Prine's debut, I couldn't help but include it on the list because the entire vibe of it seems to be how John viewed life; "Pretty good, not bad, I can't complain." It's a hell of a mantra that carries me through, as well as many others I'm sure. The version in the video posted is from a live concert, and in his narration with the crowd, you can hear the joyful spirit that was always prevalent in his being. From introducing his guitarist as "The guy who plays all the riffs I can't learn no matter how hard I try" and introducing himself as Johnny Cash, you can tell entertaining an audience is something Prine was put on this earth to do.
Sweet Revenge (1973)
"Please Don't Bury Me"
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy covered this song just hours after Prine's passing, and mentioned it felt "a little inappropriate" for the situation. While I can't disagree, I think Prine's entire point in this song is to make light of the uncomfortable situation of death. While this live video isn't the highest quality, I think it definitely captures the songs central message. Prine jokes, "It's a suggestion of what you should do with your body parts after you leave here... My doctor said, 'Don't you go giving your body parts to anybody because it's not gonna do anybody any good.'"
I also have a huge emotional connection with this song because after we laid my Uncle Jeffy to rest, I played this song for my family as we celebrated his life. John and Jeff were a lot alike in the way that neither of them seemed to take anything too seriously, and both of them could put a smile on your face even in the worst of situations. Now, I can only hope that John and Jeffy are together making jokes while Jeffy drinks his Diet Mountain Dew and John smokes his cigarette that's nine miles long.
"Dear Abby" is without a doubt one of the funniest songs Prine ever wrote. It's a collection of several stories from several sad saps in the world all telling their problems to the fixer of all, the newspapers omniscient "Abby." Prine was inspired to write the song after reading a European newspaper. "...All the tragic news in the world crammed into six pages with no sports results and no comics. And yet here's 'Dear Abby.' She was the only relief in the whole paper".
This is another one I have a personal connection with. When I was about 10 years old, I was in my dad's apartment and he taught me the first chords I ever learned on the guitar to this song. He himself wasn't a great guitar player — still in the learning stage. But I remember how much we laughed at the songs absurd lyrics and how we challenged each other on who could play it more fluently.
Bruised Orange (1978)
"Fish and Whistle"
The first track on Bruised Orange, this song tells you right off the bat that it's gonna be a great record. The melody is one of the most sing-a-long-able of Prine's career and the lyrics are a classic stream of consciousness sounding Prine. The chorus is one of the most well-conceived and perfectly worded that he's ever gifted us. "Father forgive us for what we must do/You forgive us and we'll forgive you/We'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue/And we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven" will be stuck in my head for the rest of eternity.
"That's the Way the World Goes Round"
This song is a beautiful acknowledgment about accepting the things in the world that are out of your control. It's gratitude for the good things that come to you in life but also recognition of their impermanence. But it's also a recognition that the bad things will also pass. "That's the way that the world goes round, you're up one day the next you're down." It's a back and forth that gives and takes and always comes back around.
This performance of the song with Colbert from a couple of years ago is one of my absolute favorites. It perfectly conveys the songs whimsical optimism and Colbert looks to be overjoyed that he's singing this absolute classic with the genius who crafted it.
The Missing Years (1991)
"All the Best"
If anyone tells you they know a better break-up song than this one, they're lying to your face. Two decades into songwriting and following a divorce, Prine wrote one of the most honest and sentimental ballads of his career. It proves that even though it's not necessarily easy, there can be heartbreak without malice (but not without a couple of good digs thrown in). In the end though, John shows that he can be the bigger man and truly wish the best for someone even when it's not with him.
"It's a Big Old Goofy World"
Similar in theme to "That's the Way the World Goes Round", this song reinforces Prine's comical and lighthearted view of the world around him. He sings about silly people and their silly actions as well as his own. At first glance, it seems like such a simple song, and at its core it is. But Prine is and always will be the master of illustrating depth with pure simplicity. The chorus is laidback and carefree with "There's a big old goofy man dancing with a big old goofy girl, oooo baby it's a big old goofy world."
The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)
"Lonesome Friends of Science"
I remember hearing this song for the first time at the album release show and how much it stuck with me. The intro he gave it then is the same one that he gives it in this video. It's saga of a song that goes from a laugh out loud beginning about the shame of the planet Pluto, to a thoughtful ballad about humans knowing their place in the universe. With every humorous verse, Prine refrains back to "The lonesome friends of science say the world will end most any day/Well if it does then that's okay cuz I don't live here anyway/I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed/I get my mail in Tennessee, my wife my dogs and my kids and me." Prine knows we're all just passing through on this planet that was here long before us and will be here long after we're gone. He's also very comfortable in the fact that a lot of things are out of our control and passes that feeling on to everyone who gives this one a listen.
"When I Get to Heaven"
This song would end up being the final track on Prine's final album. And it couldn't have been a more perfect one. In this song, Prine shows that he never feared death. Quite the opposite actually. He raves about how excited he is for his after-life adventures. He relishes in the idea of starting a rock n' roll band in heaven, helping himself to vodka and ginger ale, and puffing on a cigarette that's nine miles long. The song ends in a frenzied chorus that is nothing short of a large party, complete with kazoos. It perfectly captures the sound of a celebration of life and an acceptance for what's next to come. A perfect swan song.
Rest in Peace John Prine. I'll never be able to thank you enough.