Shame on you if you don’t know the music of John Prine. Hmmm, perhaps that’s too harsh.
No, I don’t think it is.
The singer-songwriter was born in 1946 and has been around long enough for even older readers to have heard. He has stayed in the spotlight despite two bouts with cancer that have thrown tiny pebbles into his voice. Younger fans continue to discover him and his concerts and CDs. Today’s artists sing and record his songs; the latest I know of is Kacey Musgraves, the young country singer who even wrote a song about Prine.
The description I hear most often of Prine is “a songwriter’s songwriter,” and that term is included in a new biography of the musician by Eddie Huffman, John Prine: In Spite of Himself; you’ll read more about that on this page, along with Prine’s story.
More than his gravelly voice, it’s the words that grab me in a Prine song. They started flowing full time in his head as he walked a mail route in Chicago in 1971.
“I always likened the mail route to a library with no books,” he has been quoted as saying. “I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”
Those little ditties were gold from the beginning. His first album, John Prine, was amazing in its breadth, providing something for everybody. On it, he speaks of lonely old people and drug-addicted Vietnam veterans and depression-filled lives as though he had lived many more than his then-2½ decades.
I like lyrics you can understand, music that doesn’t obliterate the words, and in those regards – to steal the title of a recent Prine album – the singing postman delivers. His songs are among the funniest you will hear, and among the saddest. Some are slow, others rocking fast. It is his wordplay that makes you sit up and listen.
Perhaps my favorite line from any song by anybody is from Come Back to Us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard (yes, that’s just the song title, but it weaves a sad tale). That line goes “… if heartaches were commercials, we’d all be on TV.” Has there ever been a deeper truth than that?
I encountered John Prine as soon as he began recording albums. He was played on the radio in those laidback days, and in the mid-1970s he performed on a flatbed trailer in a field on my college campus.
His long hair flying, he strode up and down the trailer, playing guitar and perhaps feeling a little better than I was.
A few years later, I was at a weeklong journalism conference in Atlanta, and in the wee hours in the hospitality suite, someone picked up a guitar. Top editors from U.S. News & World Report and Northern newspapers became honorary Southerners as they joined in with the rest of us on Paradise, perhaps Prine’s best-known song.
Paradise tells of the town in western Kentucky that his family left shortly before his birth. A coal company with “the world’s largest shovel” had destroyed the town. The chorus goes:
“And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.
“Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
A few years later I was in Augusta, and I remember dropping in on a watering hole. We sat on the patio, and a guitarist walked around, taking requests. Sung more than once that night by the entire crowd was Paradise.
I remember the time the newspaper’s Dear Abby column ran a question from someone signing his letter “Noisemaker” because his stomach made noises whenever he kissed. I recognized it as a stolen stanza from Prine’s Dear Abby, in which the advice columnist gives the same bland reply to everyone’s problems. Evidently she didn’t know his song and responded with a straight face. Shame on you for not knowing Prine’s music, Abby.
Unrequited love plays well into Prine songs. In one, he works with a girl who doesn’t return his feelings.
“Will you still see me tomorrow?” he asks.
“No, I got too much to do,” she replies.
He sums it up with: “Well a question ain’t really a question, if you know the answer, too.”
He mixes emotions so adeptly. In That’s the Way That the World Goes Round, he busts us for making a mountain out of a molehill: “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown.” Then, having survived an embarrassment, he feels “naked as the eyes of a clown.” What a great, uplifting simile that is.
We saw Prine a few years ago in Macon, Ga., and he was as good as ever, especially with the stories he told between songs. I hope he makes it to town again.
OK, you’ve been warned. Don’t wait. Buy John Prine’s music. Listen to it online. Go to his shows. If you don’t, it would be a shame.
Reach Glynn Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.