If you’re unfamiliar with the songs of John Prine, you may have been surprised by the volume and intensity of the support directed toward Prine upon the news — arriving March 29 — that he’d been hospitalized due to COVID-19. When Prine tragically passed away on April 7 at age 73, the outpouring of tributes from across the cultural spectrum increased exponentially. But this was fitting, of course. And it introduced the work of the humble Prine to a larger audience in a way that surely would have made him redder than a beefsteak tomato. He was remembered, far and wide, as an American treasure.
This is not to say Prine flew under the cultural radar. He had gathered top-tier recognition, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a Kennedy Center honor, and he was tagged more than once with the anvil-heavy epithet, “the Mark Twain of American Music.” He also had the adulation of generations of folk-Americana deities, from Emmylou Harris to Jason Isbell.
But what made John Prine special? After all, the pantheon of American music is rife with revered troubadours.
I used to take the train from South Bend home to Massachusetts, Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited that headed east from Chicago before going buckshot somewhere around Albany. Here’s the thing about trains in the East. Trains in the West barrel through breathtaking open vistas. Highways everywhere offer the anonymity of franchises, and many rural byways tumble out with a folksy polish, at least to the sides facing traffic. The latitudinal train lines in the East? They offer none of this. And it’s the best part about them.
Trains in the East creep through low-rent backyards, the unkempt museums of real lives. You see drying underwear and failed projects. There’s bad dancing and crooked sheds. There’s celebrations and commiserations. There’s broken toys and patchy lawns and good dogs and bad arguments. And there are people on those tiny planets with thin atmospheres taking refuge from the forces beyond them. When I found his music, I realized that every John Prine song is a secret-spied backyard.
An unrehearsed scene from a backyard, seen from a passing train, is the world at rest. It is liminal space, the cosmos where all of us dwell day-to-day — not tethered to the goal we’re eyeing, nor the past we clawed or bounded out of. It is where real people live and suffer and laugh and die and are born — it’s the now. These moments, these raw backyard menageries, are the rooms John Prine built in song. He built them from flies and neon and cigarettes and shrapnel and radio parts. And he spent a lifetime touring people through these rooms — these tiny homes — with glee and reverence, in three-and-a-half minute increments.
Keats called this gift “negative capability.” It is the ability of a great artist, a fearless artist, to dwell in the liminal space, the in-between, in pursuit of beauty or truth — to lock down so deeply amid challenge and pain and uncertainty as to find wisdom there, the way pressure on coal makes a diamond. Consider the narrator of Prine’s gem, “Far from Me,” a man punching the clock on a relationship he knows is doomed. Still, he invests — in the moment, in the suffering, in his life — enough to recognize that “she still laughs with me / but she waits just a second too long.” The wisdom to see that an “old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring” doesn’t come free. The cost is your commitment to the now, without the promise of truth. But truth is the reward.
Or, for a more ebullient example, consider Prine’s rollicking cohabitation duet with Iris DeMent, “In Spite of Ourselves.” Here, Prine’s lyrics map out a love that’s greater than the catalogued peccadillos scattered throughout any domestic union. The song is a dirty-laundry list of bad cooking, weird horniness, and questionable hygiene. But in Prine’s hands, the recognition of faults in another is not laced with resignation — it is laced with appreciation. To truly see another, he teaches, is to accept and celebrate all the particulars, faults included.
His songs — both in approach and content — suggest we plant roots in a place or a moment or a commitment and put in the work to truly know it and love it, collateral damage be damned. In the process, he shows us that if you can hunker down in that chaos and be present with unmixed attention — to borrow Simone Weil’s description of prayer — you just may see the world more clearly. He reveals as much in the song’s chorus: “In spite of ourselves we’ll end up a-sittin’ on a rainbow / Against all odds, honey we’re the big door-prize.” Dig in, suggests John Prine — and fall in love.
John Prine “arrived” in 1971 with a self-titled album featuring what would become some of the best-loved songs in modern music. On the back of the LP, Kris Kristofferson introduced his fellow craftsman with the following praise: “Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty.”
Prine’s vivid imagery and nimble wordplay, combined with his acoustic arrangements, dropped him in the bucket of “New Dylans” that the recording industry was rapidly collecting at the time, an eclectic sampling of folksingers fumbling for independence under one very long and prolific shadow. Each was trying — intentionally or not — to gain distance from Dylan by sculpting his or her own proprietary archetypes. There were Tom Waits’s hipster vampires. Townes Van Zandt’s luckless desperadoes. Young Springsteen’s greasemonkey Romeos. And that’s just to name a few of the more prominent drops in said bucket. But John Prine’s characters were different. They weren’t symbols or metaphors or mutated folk heroes. No, Prine’s characters were, in essence, his neighbors. And John Prine loved his neighbors.
If you spend any time with the songs of John Prine you won’t be shocked to learn that he worked five years as a postman in his native Illinois before he broke into music. Watching, laughing, smoking, strolling, listening, collecting — as a postman he was a part of people’s lives, but at enough distance that the imagination would be called upon to bridge the narrative gap. Prine did so with clues gleaned from return addresses and the small facts of lives glimpsed through a porch window as a parcel is handed off. If you’re interested, you can learn a lot in an instant, in a reaction or gesture — if you’re interested, if you’re listening, if you care. John Prine, to say the least, was interested. He was listening. He cared.
It’s no great claim to say the bridging of the space between an I and a you — that effort of imagination and empathy, of pondering another’s plight as if it was your own — is an act of generosity. The privilege of exploring the snares and triumphs of another’s journey — and the ways these things manifested in a waking life — was the daily possibility that fueled John Prine. To build rooms of spoons and flypaper and ashtrays and step inside them and try to understand what it’s like to call those walls home? This was a vocation.
The first line of what’s perhaps Prine’s best-known song, “Angel from Montgomery,” written in Prine’s early 20s, begins with this line: “I am an old woman.” And there is not a speck of irony or cheekiness at work. There is only reverence. A young postman from Illinois awed by the grit of an old Southern woman whose “years flow by like a broken-down dam” — but who still searches those tumbling waters for something to hold onto.
When John Prine died, people’s hearts broke. They broke because John Prine had taught us how to love when love was difficult.
John Prine’s utopian vision may just have been laid out on the first side of his first record, in his beloved song “Spanish Pipedream.” “Blow up your TV,” the speaker suggests, “throw away your paper.” The speaker commits to making up his own mind about things, to rejecting the filters placed upon his understanding of daily life and the things and people among it. He vows, in a very John Prine way, to do the understanding for himself. And, filters removed, he comes to a conclusion about how he should spend his days: “Go the country, build you a home / Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches.” It is an agenda that we might all aspire to, and one that John Prine hopefully has ascended to — some place of simple joy and honest work where all things can just be themselves.
So here’s to John Prine, standing in the eternal grove under its most crooked and wayward tree, staring up at it with a curious grin, taking the time to understand what makes it so damn beautiful.