Tony Greenstein | 09 April 2020 | Post Views:

John Prine RIP – With the Death of One of the Greatest American Singer Song Writers I Feel that a Part of Me Has Also Died

‘The Peabody Coal Company dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.’ 

There is more than one way of critiquing capitalism. You can do it by shouting slogans and adhering to dogmas or you can describe the ‘progress’ that is the destruction of the environment in language that people understand.

John Prine, the former mail man from Kentucky, preferred the latter as he described the effects of modern capitalism upon the individual, from the junkie ex-Vietnam vet to the elderly living out their lives alone.

In the above we can see how ‘modernisation’, to use a New Labour soundbite, heralded nothing other than a return to the poverty and squalor of the past, the destruction of human intimacies and the abundance of wealth for a tiny minority.

The death of John Prine proves one thing for certain. There cannot be a god. How could s/he take someone so gifted instead of the Saudi arms dealer currently ensconced in St. Thomas’ Hospital? The Coronavirus has taken its most talented victim and in the cruellest manner. John Prine was not lucky. As a heavy smoker he twice suffered from cancer, of the neck and lung and twice he escaped. Unfortunately it was not third time lucky.

It is one of life’s ironies that America can produce talents such as Prine, Dylan and Steinbeck and yet regularly elect barbarians and sociopaths to Congress and President. The United States has such a rich musical tradition, having pioneered so many musical forms and yet it is more culpable than any other country for threatening the very existence of humanity with its wars and environmental destruction.

As an aficionado of Bob Dylan I was hooked on Prine ever since I heard his first album in my teenage years. It was the self-named John Prine. Prine was a true radical bringing poignancy to the smallest and most insignificant details of life. I bought John Prine in a second hand record shop in Liverpool circa 1972. It was a great hits compilation in itself. There isn’t a duff track on it.

It contains the immortal song Hello in There’ about the sadness of old age and the loneliness that often accompanies it.

old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry 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.”

Who else could describe the pain and sadness of old age in such a direct and personal way? The song’s theme is similar to Paul Simon’s Bookends

‘I have a photograph, Preserve your memories, They’re all that’s left you’.

Prine excelled in illuminating the human condition in a way no writer, Dylan included, could do. Unlike Dylan there was no mystery about what he was saying. It was down to earth but in a magically poetic way and yet immediate way. That is the secret of a brilliant song writer.

Along with Dylan, Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot, Prine was amongst the greatest ever singer-song writers.  Quite possibly the greatest ever bar Dylan of whom he said that Prine was “pure Proustian existentialism – midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree”. Which was one way of putting it!

If I had a favourite song it has to be Paradise, about how the Peabody Coal Company had destroyed his home town.

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

It is little wonder that this strip mining company, which epitomised the slash and burn of capitalism, the imperative to destroy in order to create value, went to the Federal courts to strike out the lyrics from a lawsuit! And lost.

Sam Stone which is also on the first album was about a Vietnam veteran who, like many of the shattered bodies that came back from a war fought for American capitalism, turned to heroin. It contains the memorable line

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.

Johnny Cash changed the line about Jesus as it was too near the bone!

Prine also had a wicked sense of humour. In All the Best, a song with an infectious melody there is both optimism and heartbreak. Again it is written in the wake of a breakup in a relationship. He implores his former lover not to ‘do like I do And never fall in love with someone like you.’ It is reminiscent of the line in Dylan’s Positively 4th Street

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you

All the Best is a passionate cynical song about love, which he compares to the life of a Xmas tree, whilst proclaiming that he walks with love in his heart. It is a song of bitterness and forgiveness.

I guess that love – is like a Christmas card
You decorate a tree – you throw it in the yard
It decays and dies – and the snowmen melt
Well, I once knew love – I knew how love felt
Yeah I knew love – love knew me
And when I walked – love walked with me
And I got no hate – and I got no pride
Well, I got so much love that I cannot hide

I wish you love – I wish you happiness
I guess I wish – you all the best

I love his duo with Iris Dement, the title song of the album ‘In Spite of Ourselves’. Dement is a talented folk and protest singer in her own right. The song is about a couple still madly in love with each other but alive to each others’ faults.

He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays
I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done
Drinks his beer like it’s oxygen
He’s my baby
And I’m his honey
Never gonna let him go
In spite of ourselves
We’ll end up a sittin’ on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize
We’re gonna spite our noses
Right off of our faces
There won’t be nothin’ but big old hearts
Dancin’ in our eyes.
He’s got more balls than a big brass monkey
He’s a whacked out weirdo and a lovebug junkie
Sly as a fox and crazy as a loon
Payday comes and he’s howlin’ at the moon
He’s my baby I don’t mean maybe
Never gonna let him go

When choosing Prine songs one is spoilt for choice. My favourite love song is The Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness written in the wake of the break-up of his second marriage.

How can a love that’ll last forever
Get left so far behind…

Well, how can you ask about tomorrow
We ain’t got one word to say

Prine sings it with a remarkable female American folk-singer, Nancy Griffiths. Nancy Griffith’s cover of Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather is magic. Nancy also does a wonderful version of Speed of Sound of Loneliness.

Prine gathered a host of other musicians, especially female, around him.

Prine has Dylan’s knack for a memorable phrase.  In Far From Me also from his first album he asks ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring.’  Who would think of such a comparison?

It is the attention to the tiniest detail and his ability to transform it into an illustration of something in life with a message of its own that marks out Prine’s greatness.

I just love his song Souvenirs from his second album Diamonds in Rough and his duo with Steve Goodman, who died at the age of 36 from leukemia. It is simply the perfect song with an infectious harmony and lyrics to match. A poignant song about childhood and other memories.

All the snow has turned to water
Christmas days have come and gone
Broken toys and faded colors
Are all that’s left to linger on
I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my childhood souvenirs

Memories they can’t be boughten
They can’t be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years
To get those souvenirs
And I don’t know how they slipped away from me

Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this mornin’
Always look the same to me

I hate reading old love letters
For they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
Of my sweetheart’s souvenirs

As Ralph McTell once wrote,

‘there is beauty in pain. And a sadness in joy,’

John Prine had the ability to bring a tear even to those with hearts of stone. I will miss him. Fortunately he has bequeathed an exceptional legacy to humanity.

Below the Rolling Stone obituary is well worth reading and if you haven’t come across John Prine before I suggest you to go to Rolling Stone’s 25 best John Prine Songs. I warn you that you won’t be disappointed!

Rest in peace John. You deserve it.

Tony Greenstein

With Roger Waters

Grammy-winning singer who combined literary genius with a common touch succumbs to coronavirus complications

By Stephen L. Betts & Patrick Doyle

John Prine, the Grammy-winning singer who combined literary genius with a common touch, has died at 73 from coronavirus complications.

John Prine, who for five decades wrote rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music, died Tuesday at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 73. The cause was complications related to COVID-19, his family confirmed to Rolling Stone.

Related: 25 Essential Songs

Prine, who left behind an extraordinary body of folk-country classics, was hospitalized last month after the sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, and was placed in intensive care for 13 days. Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona, announced on March 17th that she had tested positive for the virus after they had returned from a European tour.

As a songwriter, Prine was admired by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and others, known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience. There’s “Hello in There,” about the devastating loneliness of an elderly couple; “Sam Stone,” a portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam soldier suffering from PTSD; and “Paradise,” an ode to his parents’ strip-mined hometown of Paradise, Kentucky, which became an environmental anthem. Prine tackled these subjects with empathy and humor, with an eye for “the in-between spaces,” the moments people don’t talk about, he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan said in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”


John Prine: The Secrets Behind His Classic Songs

The Last Word: John Prine on Fatherhood, Johnny Cash, Why Happiness Isn’t Good for Songwriting

Prine was also an author, actor, record-label owner, two-time Grammy winner, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the recipient of the 2016 PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, a honor previously given to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Prine helped shape the Americana genre that has gained popularity in recent years, with the success of Prine fans such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carilie, to name a few. His music was covered by Bonnie Raitt (who popularized “Angel From Montgomery,” his soulful ballad about a woman stuck in a hopeless marriage), George Strait, Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Maura O’Connell, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Todd Snider, Carl Perkins, Bette Midler, Gail Davies, and dozens of others.

Though he was an underground singer-songwriter for most of his career, Prine had a remarkable final act. In 2018, he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of original material in 13 years. The album went to Number Five on the Billboard 200, the highest debut of his career, and he played some of his biggest shows ever, including a sold-out tour kickoff at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The album was released on Oh Boy Records, the independent label Prine started with his longtime manager, business partner, and friend Al Bunetta. In recent years, Prine, his wife, and son Jody ran the label out of a small Nashville home office.

Prine’s string of acclaimed solo albums began with his self-titled 1971 debut on Atlantic Records, featuring a tracklist that reads like a greatest-hits compilation: “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and “Angel From Montgomery” among them. Throughout his career, Prine explored a wide variety of musical styles, from hard country to rockabilly to bluegrass; he liked to say that he tried to live in a space somewhere between his heroes Johnny Cash and Dylan.

Prine was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois. His father was a tool and die maker and the president of the local steelworkers union, and raised John and his three brothers on the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and other heroes of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Though he was a poor student, Prine was a natural songwriter; two songs he wrote when he was 14, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan,” ended up on his LP Diamonds in the Rough, more than 10 years later. Prine had a restless imagination — “I would go to class and just stare at something like a button on the teacher’s shirt,” he said — but he excelled at hobbies he focused on, like gymnastics, which he was inspired to take up by his older brother, Doug. “Here was something I had no natural ability in, and I could do it well,” Prine said.

After graduating high school in 1964, Prine took the advice of his oldest brother, Dave, and became a mailman. Wandering around the Chicago suburbs, Prine wrote many of his classic early songs. During his postman years, he wrote “Donald and Lydia,” about a couple who “make love from 10 miles away,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a humorous indictment of misguided patriotism, after he noticed that locals were posting American flag decals that were included in an issue of Reader’s Digest around the neighborhood.

Prine was forced to take a hiatus from his postal career when he was drafted into the Army in late 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. But instead of being sent to Vietnam, Prine lucked out and was sent to Stuttgart, West Germany, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. Prine played down his military service, describing his contribution as “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks,” as he told Rolling Stone. But the experience did bring him to write maybe his greatest song: “Sam Stone.” The ballad is about a soldier who comes home from the war mentally shattered, turning to morphine to ease the pain. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” Prine sings in the chorus, “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”

I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018.

“And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’ ” When Johnny Cash covered the song, he rewrote the chorus, changing “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” (“If it hadn’t have been Johnny Cash,” Prine said, “I would’ve said, ‘Are you nuts?’”)

When Johnny Cash covered the song, he rewrote the chorus, changing “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” (“If it hadn’t have been Johnny Cash,” Prine said, “I would’ve said, ‘Are you nuts?’”)

Prine became an immediate sensation on the Chicago folk scene. On the day before his 24th birthday, he was performing at Chicago’s Fifth Peg when the now-iconic Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert walked in. Ebert’s headline, ‘Singing Mailman Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words,’ led to sold-out rooms. Soon, Prine’s friend and musical partner Steve Goodman convinced Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka to drop by to see Prine play at the Earl of Old Town in the summer of 1971.

“It was too damned late, and we had an early wake-up ahead of us, and by the time we got there, Old Town was nothing but empty streets and dark windows,” Kristofferson later wrote in the liner notes for Prine’s first album. “And the club was closing. But the owner let us come in, pulled some chairs off a couple of tables, and John unpacked his guitar and got back up to sing. … By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.”

Kristofferson invited Prine onstage at New York’s legendary Bitter End. The next day, Atlantic Records President Jerry Wexler offered Prine a $25,000 deal with the label. With Anka serving as his manager, Prine cut the majority of his self-titled album at American Sound in Memphis, with the studio’s house band, the Memphis Boys, famed for their work with Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Bobby Womack, and others. Though Prine lamented how nervous he sounded on the recording, and it did not make a major dent on the charts, it is now considered a classic, a touchstone for everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Steve Earle to Sturgill Simpson. In January 1973, Prine was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist, and Bette Midler included “Hello in There” on her debut LP, The Divine Miss M. Midler recently called Prine “one of the loveliest people I was ever lucky enough to know. He is a genius and a huge soul.”

“He was incredibly endearing and witty,” Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2016. She met Prine in the early Seventies and first covered “Angel From Montgomery” in 1974.

“The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.”

While Prine may have been signed to Atlantic Records, he did not conform to pop music’s rules. His follow-up to his self-titled album, 1972’s Diamonds in the Rough, was a stripped-down acoustic album that paid homage to his Appalachian bluegrass roots, which he recorded with his brother Dave for around “$7,200 including beer.” Prine likened the major-label system to a bank

“for high-finance loans. You could go to a bank and do the same thing for less money and put a loan behind your career instead of a major label throwing parties for you and charging you, and giving you the ticket and not asking what you want to eat.”

Feeling that the label could have done more to promote the hard-edged 1975 album Common Sense, he asked co-founder Ahmet Ertegun to let him out of his contract. Ertegun agreed, and Prine moved to David Geffen’s smaller Asylum label for 1978’s excellent Bruised Orange, which was produced by Goodman, with classics like “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” (later covered by Miranda Lambert) and the heartbreaking “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” a meditation on loneliness from the point of view of 1930s film star Sabu Dastagir. “When I wrote that one and ‘Jesus the Missing Years,’ ” Prine recently told Rolling Stone,

“I was afraid to sing them for somebody else. I thought they were going to look at me and say, ‘You’ve done it. You’ve crossed the line. You need the straitjacket.’ But if I let it sit for a couple weeks and it still affects me, it’s something I would like to hear somebody say, then I figure, my instinct is as good as a normal person. I would like to hear that somebody do that, so I just go ahead and jump into it.”

Prine’s offbeat odyssey continued with Pink Cadillac, a rockabilly album he made with Sam Phillips and Phillips’ sons Jerry and Knox. By 1982, Prine decided to follow the path of his friend Goodman and start his own label, Oh Boy Records, with Bunetta. Following a Christmas single, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”/”Silver Bells,” Prine’s first LP release was 1984’s Aimless Love. The business model, with fans sending in checks by mail, was a success, and early proof that singer-songwriters could survive without the support of a major label. “He created the job I have,” said songwriter Todd Snider, who released his early albums on Oh Boy.

“Especially when he went to his own label, and started doing it with his own family and team. Before him, there was nothing for someone like Jason Isbell to aspire to, besides maybe Springsteen.”

In 1989, Sony offered to buy Oh Boy, an offer Prine turned down. Two years later, he scored one of the biggest successes of his career with 1991’s The Missing Years. Produced by Howie Epstein of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, it featured guest appearances by Petty, Springsteen, and Raitt. The title track, “Jesus the Missing Years” is one of Prine’s most ambitious songs, attempting to fill in the 18-year gap (from age 12 to 29) in Jesus Christ’s life unaccounted for in the Bible. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Prine was married three times. He married his high school sweetheart, Ann Carole, in 1966, and they stayed together until the late Seventies. He wed songwriter and bassist Rachel Peer, who he met at Cowboy Jack Clement’s Nashville studio, in 1984. In 1988, Prine was in Ireland when he met Fiona Whelan, a Dublin recording-studio business manager. She soon moved to Nashville and they married in April 1996. By then, she had given birth to their two sons, Jack and Tommy. “It brought me right down to earth,” Prine said. “I was a dreamer. I learned real fast I don’t know anything except songwriting.” Prine also adopted Jody Whelan, Fiona’s son from a previous relationship. Jody and Fiona would eventually become Prine’s co-managers, overseeing the most commercially successful moment in his career.

This idyllic chapter of Prine’s life was complicated in 1997 when, during the sessions for InSpite of Ourselves — a successful duets album with women, including Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless — Prine discovered a cancerous growth on his neck. It was stage 4 cancer. “I felt fine,” Prine said later.

“It doesn’t hit you until you pull up to the hospital and you see ‘cancer’ in big letters, and you’re the patient. Then it all kind of comes home.”

In January 1998, doctors removed a small tumor, taking a portion of the singer’s neck with it, altering his physical appearance. Prine thought he might never sing again. However, after a year and a half, he returned to performing, with a small show in Bristol, Tennessee.

“The crowd was with me. Boy, were they with me,” he said. “And I think I shook everybody’s hand afterward. I knew right then and there that I could do it.”

The next decade brought Prine another Grammy for 2005’s Fair & Square. That year, Prine joined Ted Kooser, 13th Poet Laureate of the United States, becoming the first artist to read and play at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Prine saw his already formidable influence reach another generation of artists, including Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Kacey Musgraves.

In 2013, Prine was again sidelined briefly, diagnosed with a spot on his left lung. Six months after the cancer was removed, he was back on the road. Following Buntta’s 2015 death, Prine became sole owner and president of Oh Boy Records, which has also been home to recordings by Snider, Dan Reeder, R.B. Morris, and Heather Eatman, among others.

His last studio album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in April 2018, just six months after he was named the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year. Rolling Stonesaid the album had “all the qualities that have defined him as one of America’s greatest songwriters.”

Prine attended the Grammys in January, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. The singer could be seen on television with his family, grinning and wearing sunglasses, as Bonnie Raitt sang “Angel From Montgomery.” Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Onstage, he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.

John Prine: this extraordinarily gifted songwriter was the envy of all

See also

John Prine, One of America’s Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73

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Tony Greenstein

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