John Prine: 1946 – 2020
The phrase “songwriter’s songwriter” seems to be trotted out every time a great tunesmith passes, but from the very start of his career that’s exactly what John Prine was, his work lauded by Dylan, Cash, Springsteen and so many others. Prine — who died in Nashville on April 7, at age 73, a victim of the COVID-19 scourge — never rose to their level commercially, and gave the impression he didn’t care one way or the other if he did. He wasn’t about the fame or palling around with the cool kids. He seemed genuinely content to cede recognition to the stories themselves.
Often in his writing, Prine drew upon his own life experiences, but many of his most poignant songs found him embodying the kind of folks who were unlikely ever to make their way to one of his concerts. “Hello in There,” one of several early gems, tracks the interminably sluggish, unforgiving passage of time and its attendant loneliness: “Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello,’” he sings. Prine was in his mid-20s when he recorded it.
In “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow),” the title track of a 1978 album, the writer considers the emotions available to him when an altar boy is struck by a train: “For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter/You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there,” he sings, before concluding, “You carry those bruises to remind you wherever you go.”
Prine’s considerable body of work has long since been lionized as a cornerstone of Americana, but definitive categorization always evaded him. He was, simply, John Prine — nothing more or less. Here are a handful of brilliant songs — among dozens we could have chosen — that he left behind.
“Angel From Montgomery”
If Prine had released only his eponymous 1971 debut album before calling it quits, he still would have made a cherished contribution: At least half of its tunes are rightfully considered singer-songwriter templates today. For “Angel From Montgomery,” possibly his most oft-covered song (Bonnie Raitt’s interpretation is sublime), Prine, in a voice that borders on the purposefully monotonic, reveals his gift for well-drawn characterization in the guise of “an old woman named after my mother.” She whiles away the hours, hope and meaning forever just beyond reach: “Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
While other songwriters of the era were glorifying drug use, Prine instead gave us this stark, heartbreaking portrait of an addicted war veteran. (Prine was an Army vet himself; his service in West Germany during Vietnam book-ended his legendary tenure as a mailman in Illinois.) Sam Stone returns from the unspecified “conflict overseas” to a “welcome home [that] didn’t last too long.” Now he’s taken to petty crime to support his habit, the owner of “a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” No other songwriter could have written a line as chilling as “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes” and delivered it with such a stirring meld of pathos and empathy.
“Christmas in Prison”
This cheerful-sounding old-timey waltz, tucked into 1973’s Sweet Revenge, Prine’s third album, is on its surface little more than a lament whose content is summed up in its title. But, this being a Prine creation, there is of course more: the narrator’s longing for his gal, whose “heart is as big as this whole goddamn jail,” is tempered with just a dab of cynicism and maybe more apathy than he cares to admit. “There’ll be music tonight, I’ll probably get homesick/I love you, goodnight,” Prine sings, but that “probably” kind of makes you wonder just how much.
“Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”
Prine did not care for wit as a tool; he used it sparingly and subtly, not as a crowd-pleaser. Yet every so often he dove in headfirst, as with this kooky surprise from 1986’s German Afternoons. Sure, there’s the obligatory travel brochure — swaying grass skirts and rum drinks with pineapple. But Jimmy Buffett this isn’t: Prine takes his island vacation to a whole other place that, in anyone else’s hands, might have been embarrassingly dumb: “Waka waka nuka licka, waka waka nuka licka/Would you like a lei? Eh?” he sings, as earnestly as possible under the circumstances, leaving no option other than to smile and say sure.
“Jesus, the Missing Years”
Between his birth and death, and aside from all that Biblical stuff, how did young Jesus Christ spend his days? Prine has some ideas about that: a little bit of shoplifting, marriage to an Irish girl, a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, discovering the Beatles, recording with the Stones, opening for George Jones. Blasphemy? Hardly. Part talking blues, part sing-along ditty, this good-time highlight from 1991’s The Missing Years offers incontrovertible evidence that Prine’s gift served him well into his career. There were no missing years for him.
Veteran music journalist Jeff Tamarkin has held lead editorial positions at Goldmine, CMJ, Relix and Global Rhythm, and is the author of Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.
Image credit: Rovi
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