No one writes the way John Prine did. As Bob Dylan once remarked, Prine’s lyrics are “pure Proustian existentialism, Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.” Before his death in 2020, he left behind an endless stream of incisive and timeless classics. From the biggest hits to the unsung gems, Prine was a singular force—never before heard and never to be recreated.
His appeal largely stems from the humor he injected into each of his songs without losing an ounce of hard-hitting truth. Equally moving and light-hearted, looking at Prine’s lyrics is a masterclass in storytelling. Below, we’re going through just 10 of the most clever lines from John Prine’s catalog.
1. Blow up your TV, throw away your paper / Go to the country, build you a home / Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches / Try and find Jesus on your own
(“Spanish Pipedream” from John Prine)
In “Spanish Pipedream,” Prine recites the creed of the country artist: stick to the simple things in life. In his view, the simple life involves leaving the rest of the world behind, a home to call your own, and finding religion of your own volition. With just a few lines of lyrics, Prine makes finding happiness a remarkably effortless venture.
2. Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see / That’s why last night and this mornin’ / Always look the same to me
(“Souvenirs” from Souvenirs/Diamonds in the Rough)
Prine knew how to turn a phrase. In Souvenirs, Prine is recollecting memories of a life equally filled with good times and heartbreak. The lines above are a clear example of Prine’s ability to clear the air in a room by being the one to say the hard stuff, with unparalleled tact.
3. Looks like I had my fill / Guess I better pay my bill / When I started out I only meant to have a few / Someone just said that you left town / I better get a double round / And yes I guess they oughta name a drink after you
(“Yes They Oughta Name a Drink After You” from Diamonds in the Rough)
His relationship was driving him to drink in “Yes They Oughta Name a Drink After You.” Though he was finding it hard to live with her, it would be even harder to watch her go, he said. The lines above close out the Diamonds in the Rough track. By the final lines of the song, he has resigned to his spot at the bar and wishes they would just cut out the middle man and name a drink after his lost love.
4. Ya’ know that 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.” (“Hello in There” from John Prine)
While a lot of his songs tried to retain an air of levity, Prine wasn’t afraid to delve into somber themes at times. “Hello in There” is one such example. In the song, he looks back on the life of an aging man whose kids have all grown up and “left them alone.” He and his wife Loretta have run out of things to talk about and the news seems to be on a never-ending loop of all things disparaging. In the chorus, he urges the listener to stop passing by “hollow ancient eyes” and instead stop and talk for a while and show them you care.
5. But your flag decal won’t get you / Into Heaven anymore / They’re already overcrowded / From your dirty little war
(“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” from John Prine)
Prine was never one to shy away from contentious topics. A veteran himself, a number of his songs concerned themselves with the plight of returning soldiers and anti-war sentiments. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” is a staunch protest against the Vietnam War taken from his lauded debut record. The lines above prove that right from the very beginning, Prine refused to pull his lyrical punches.
6. Give my stomach to Milwaukee if they run out of beer / Put my socks in a cedar box just get ’em out of here / Venus de Milo can have my arms look out! I’ve got your nose / Sell my heart to the Junkman / And give my love to Rose
(“Please Don’t Bury Me” from Sweet Revenge)
In “Please Don’t Bury Me,” Prine begs to be cut up and taken around the country for one last ride after he dies. Across the song he dedicates each part of himself to somewhere and someone new, laying out a plan to go from coast to coast.
In the lines above, he pledges his beer-filled stomach to Milwaukee, his arms to the classic Greek sculpture Venus De Milo, who is famously lacking in that department, and references Johnny Cash’s song “Give My Love to Rose.” It’s tongue-in-cheek lyricism of the highest caliber.
7. 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
(“Angel From Montgomery” from John Prine)
Prine often wrote songs from the perspective of others. In “Angel From Montgomery” he takes on the role of a tired and lonesome housewife that has to beg for attention from her husband. In true Prine fashion, he sets the scene so vividly you can almost hear a fly buzzing around your head as you stew while the silence from your partner grates on your nerves more and more.
8. ‘Cause 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 / Yeah this old man is goin’ to town
(“When I Get To Heaven” from The Tree of Forgiveness)
Prine often sang about dying. Unlike “Please Don’t Bury Me,” Prine focuses on his spiritual self and what awaits him in the afterlife—and the picture he paints doesn’t sound half bad. An endless cocktail hour, smoking without consequence, and never wanting for romance would probably classify as a paradise to a number of people. His knack for making the unknown a little less scary is well on display in “When I Get to Heaven.”
9. 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
(“In Spite of Ourselves” from In Spite of Ourselves)
Prine penned “In Spite of Ourselves” with Iris DeMent in mind. Frequent collaborators, the pair perfectly compliment each other across the charmingly crass song. With lyrics that curb a picture-perfect relationship, DeMent said it took courage to sing the lines the first few rounds. Despite their shortcomings, the pair lyrically throw their hands up and decide to revel in them.
10. We are the lonely all together / All together we’re all alone
(“We Are the Lonely” from Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings)
If a songwriter has ever held a mirror in front of our faces, it’s Prine. He had a way of boiling down weighty concepts into a succinct thought that somehow made them feel lighter than air. In this track from Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, he reassures us all that we are all going through this thing called life together, even when we feel our most alone.
(Photo by Tom Hill/Getty Images)