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A tribute to beloved songwriter John Prine

John Prine. Image by Ron Baker.
John Prine. Image by Ron Baker.

One of the great artists of our time, songwriter John Prine, was unfairly taken from us on April 7th. He died from the COVID-19 virus. He was 73.

A true songwriter’s songwriter, he defies categorization in so many ways. His songwriting combined elements of folk, rock, country, blues, and more. As a lyricist he simply has no peer.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and even Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters each thought he was one of the greatest songwriters of our time. And that’s only a few of the dozens of names I could mention.

Prine released his self-titled debut album in 1971. It had an immediate impact and includes many of his most iconic songs. “Sam Stone,” the story of a Vietnam veteran who can’t handle life after the war, shows the psychological depth of his genius. The last verses are devastating:

Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
He played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air

But life had lost its fun
There was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill
For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears
Don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

It’s enough to make you cry. Many of his lyrics can.

“Sam Stone” is only one of the many classics from his debut. “Paradise,” perhaps the greatest folk song, has been covered hundreds of time. Written for his father, the song describes the ravaging effects that coal mining had on the area he grew up in. Like most Prine songs, though, it says so much more than that:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waiting
Just five miles away from wherever I am

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
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

John Prine would have an important place in songwriting history had he written only these two songs. Incredibly, not only were they on the same album, but three other songs from it are just as timeless.

“Hello in There” shows how well Prine understands and is able to describe the human condition, and he does so with understated beauty. The story of an old retired couple balances hope and despair with uncompromising emotional depth:

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more
She sits and stares through the backdoor screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream
That we’ve both seen

Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy
We worked together at the factory
But what could I say if asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do”
 

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say
“Hello in there…hello” 

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”

“Angel from Montgomery,” the first-person account of a housewife who can’t handle her monotonous life, was popularized by Bonnie Raitt. It again shows Prine’s singular ability to get to the heart of the matter:

There’s flies in the kitchen
I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

“Far from Me” is less well-known but equally powerful. One of the greatest break-up songs, it uses subtle descriptions to get across profound points. The way he gets into the mind and heart of the man and woman who are breaking up is unparalleled:

Well, I started the engine
And I gave it some gas
Cathy was closing her purse
Well, we hadn’t gone far in my beat old car
And I was prepared for the worst.

“Will you still see me tomorrow?”
“No, I got too much to do”
Well, a question ain’t really a question
If you know the answer too

And the sky is black and still now
On the hill where the angels sing
Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
Looks just like a diamond ring
But it’s far, far from me

Humor was an important part of Prine’s music. He balanced the serious and the lighthearted in a true-to-life way. Classics “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream,” and hilarious social commentary “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” show this side of him well.

Keep in mind that each of these songs were all on the same album – his very first. Prine still had his entire career ahead of him, and he never slowed down.

Many know Prine from his numerous collaborations. He’s appeared with everyone from Kris Kristofferson and Tom Petty to Sturgill Simpson and Dan Auerbach. Perennial favorite “In Spite of Ourselves,” a duet with folk singer Iris Dement, is perhaps his most famous. Most recently, he was the guest of honor at the Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National)-curated Eaux Claires festival in 2017.

Prine’s last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in 2018. The fitting swansong contains all prime Prine hallmarks: powerful insight, emotional resonance, and good humor. He showed that he hadn’t lost any of his power on tracks like “Summer’s End.”

The final track on The Tree of Forgiveness, “When I Get to Heaven,” is a fitting of send-off:

When I get to heaven, 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?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is going to town

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back into showbusiness
I’m gonna open up a nightclub called The Tree of Forgiveness
And forgive everybody ever done me any harm
Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syph’litic parasitics
Buy ’em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ’em with my charm

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is going to town

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?
And then I’m gonna go find my mom and dad, and good old brother Doug
Well I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug
I wanna see all my mama’s sisters, ’cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy, bless their little hearts
And I always will remember these words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head”
I hope to prove him wrong, that is, when I get to 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
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is going to town

God bless John Prine, one of the great artists of our time. To say that he’ll be missed is a cruel understatment.

Erik Ritland
Author: Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

Written by Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

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