AUDIO: A Conversation with John Prine

Listen to our original 2018 interview today on The Power of Song

April 7, 2021, marked the one year anniversary of one of the darkest dark days in recent history, the death of John Prine. It was one of the toughest things at the time to accept was true, and a full year later it’s not a whole lot easier.

Videos by American Songwriter

To kick off a series of John Prine stories, we’re happy to bring you the audio of our original interview, which comes with my spoken intro, which says a lot about the man and the songs. After which you’re invited to join us for a great conversation with John.

Though he was a genius with words, he knew well that words alone don’t suffice when it comes to expressing the actuality of life. It’s why his genius shone so purely and for so long in this singular artform – songwriting – because his words didn’t have to stand alone. Always they came attached with music. And as all songwriters and song lovers know, words with music have a power unlike any other, as the music delivers the emotion, and fills in all those vacancies where humans have no words adequate enough to deliver the entire picture. 

And for that reason – the singular, undeniable, timeless force of words and music merged perfectly by a songwriter with a big heart, a deep, empathetic soul, and an innate genius for both words and music and how they come together – the songs of John Prine mean as much to us as they did when they first emerged, many of which started many decades ago. 

At first the idea of a world without John Prine seemed too awful to endure. Until we gradually realized, as we did after the death of Lennon and so many other beloved songwriters, that though the man is officially gone from our midst, the songs are not even slightly diminished by his physical absence. If anything – and this applies greatly to Prine’s song – they grow richer, more poignant and life-affirming.

As a Chicago boy who grew up  with great love and reverence for our local heroes, John Prine and his best pal Steve Goodman (and also Michael Smith, also a bonafide genius of songwriting who we lost months ago) I’ve always felt a closeness to Prine. Long before I ever met him or got to interview him and even hang with him, he felt like a friend. A close, very funny, sweetly sentimental, humble, brilliant friend. And one who, in the tradition of Chicagoans knowing what matters, was a lover of a good hotdog. He was a genius who never had to play the role. If anything, he did the opposite – and played the role of a regular guy. Even though he wasn’t one. Regular guys don’t write “Angel from Montgomery.” Even genius songwriters don’t write it. Except for one.

It’s why long before America woke up in a big way to the enduring, remarkable genius of this songwriter, other songwriters knew. From that first album on, released in 1971, there was no question about it. It’s why Steve Goodman insisted Kristofferson hear him, and help him get a record contract. It’s why Kristofferson heard him and immediately knew Goodman was right. Even joking that Prine was so good somebody better bust his fingers, or they will all be outshone. It’s why Dylan, upon first hearing Prine’s songs, was stunned, and compared Prine not to Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry or some other songwriter. He compared him to the man who remembered everything long before John wrote about it, Proust. The author of Remembrance of Things Past, which could have been the subtitle of all of Prine’s albums. But not Proust alone, but blended with dimensions of post-modern philosophy and some solid Studs Terkel-like Chicago soil under his feet.  

“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” wrote Dylan. “Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree…Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

As usual, Dylan was exactly right. Nobody but John Prine could write songs like that. And even John couldn’t do it every day, or even every year. But when he did it, whether the result was an early classic, or a later one like “Lake Marie” or “Summer’s End,” they were as great as it gets. And could only be defined accurately with with one phrase–“a John Prine song.” Any other description is simply inadequate. It’s the same with a Randy Newman song. Each essentially developed their own school of songwriting. A school nobody else has ever graduated from, though many have tried.

But to write a John Prine song takes more than effort, more than genius even. It takes being John Prine. Because the man was the song. All of them. That poignantly beautiful and human fusion of sorrow and laughter in his songs was a recipe he concocted, and a meal only he could cook right. Others have tried, and some have come close. But still there was always something missing. Him.

Growing up as I did a songwriter in the suburbs of Chicago, his songs and his singular spirit meant so much to me in my life and for so long that they seem like friends. I’ve spent more time with Sam Stone, Sabu, Donald, Lydia and all the narrators of all of his songs, than I have with my own friends and family. Those songs were always there for me, even when nobody else was. Also at times I would let no one else in, his songs were always there. I trusted them. And to this day, they have never let me down.

Although we still have all those songs, the world without the man isn’t the same. That the year of his death was also the saddest in my life and the lives of millions, a year of more loss than we’ve ever known, seems somehow right. And, sure, many will suggest it’s not all Prine-related, but let’s face it, it’s all connected. America has been like a ghost-town since he departed. Everyone stopped playing live music, all the clubs, restaurants, bars closed down, churches and temples too, kids stopped going to school, and nobody hardly leaves home. Even those guys doing late-night TV shows stopped going to work, and did them from home. It’s slowly shifting back, like the grass waking up after months of snow and ice. But it’s not the same world.

This time last year I was busy beginning work on a tribute/eulogy/remembrance of him for this magazine. I wrote several smaller pieces, but my Prine opus was never right, day after day. It was “too much and not enough,” to quote Dylan (again). It was way too long, and still not complete.

I did publish several other Prine stories, including posting the original interview in print. In that one my apology for not finishing my intended piece was already prominent; now a year later it’s funny, in a sad way, to read these words. But honest. It’s funny to quote me, but here goes. I wrote:

My current work continues on a written tribute for John which is about as long as Moby Dick now, and doesn’t seem like enough. Don’t worry – I will cut it down, and complete it. But it’s just been too damn sad right now to get it right. Hell, I’m still sad about losing Steve Goodman, who was John’s best pal and another Chicago hero. And we lost Stevie decades ago. But his absence always was hard to accept. And now this. John was always the survivor, the one who remained, honoring Goodman’s legacy while gradually becoming one of the world’s most revered and beloved songwriters. (Which would have made Steve so happy.)”

That is true. I know I am not alone in mourning Steve Goodman still. . But having John around in such a beautiful way, and also Michael Smith (the man inside “The Dutchman”) sure helped. Now they’re all gone. John and Michael within months of each other. “We become birds,” wrote Michael, “when we die.” They’re all soaring now.

I was grateful that my friend Jason Wilber wrote a beautiful remembrance of Prine which he let us publish. Jason played in John’s band for 25 years – guitar, mandolin and harmony vocals. To read his words on John was unlike anything else written about him. Sometimes that band would be bigger or smaller – with drums, without – but always Jason. That he was the guy standing next to John Prine onstage for all those years was for two reasons, primarily: because he’s a great and very sensitive musician, and because he’s a great guy, the kind you can depend on. John was serious about music and very professional. But he believed, as did his good friend Cowboy Jack Clement, that music is about having fun. And Jason and John always had fun onstage and off

It was with some more of this sad humor, which is in big supply lately,  that it occurred to me last week that the one year anniversary was days away, and that I could whip my piece into shape, maybe cut it down a bit (as it is about 35,500 words longer than the suggested 500 word limit for our online stories), and publish it on the sad date – April 7 – as if I planned it for this day all along.

John Prine & Jason Wilber

But even that proved too hard. You fans of Prine understand. Writing about him isn’t like writing about the death of any other songwriter. Because the guy, to those who knew him and those who didn’t, was so warm and funny he felt like a friend, or like family, always.

But it’s also because his songs are so damn poignant. Yesterday I took a moment to play “Summer’s End,” his beautiful record of it on his last album, Tree of Forgiveness. (As my fellow Prine acolytes already know, it’s in D major, though he plays it in C with the capo on the second fret. ) And it’s that progression from the I to the III chord (C to Em, or D to F#M), and the melody on those chords,  that gives the whole song that deeply wistful, sombre tone.)

I was playing along with him on guitar, as I often do, while looking at the lyric. And it just hit me in the gut. All he says without saying it directly. There’s so much more there than what those words alone signify. The music – those chords – that man singing it with the deep, gentle tone, like a loving father to a wayward son – it is simply beyond. Beyond words. Beyond my ability to pin down exactly how he does it. But man, this is powerful stuff.

We know now that the greatest of the great songwriters, some of whom have great success during their lifetimes but many who don’t, are appreciated more and more long after they’re gone. Because it sometimes takes people a long time to realize just how deep, beautiful and miraculous is the body of work one guy created. Especially if that guy is so funny, and happy about his love for hotdogs and Archie comics and birthday cakr with ice cream and old cars with red interiors that it was so easy to be charmed and entertained by him you might miss the bigger picture – this guy wrote songs for the ages.

It’s sad but true that when an artist dies, it’s then their entire body of work can be truly seen. His songs, like those of Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and others, have been built to last by a true master, and will always be here.

For those of us who lived in his lifetime – and even got to see him in real-time (as opposed to dream and/or song time) should rejoice. We were blessed. But first we need to all stop weeping already!

Along these lines, we are bringing you a series of John Prine stories and other offerings. Starting with this audio, which is now an artifact of sorts of history, like a scratchy recording of a phone call with Mark Twain. The interview was printed in these pages – both our digital ones and in our magazine – and also is in the book More Songwriters On Songwriting.

And the sound is a little scratchy, as are all my Mark Twain interview tapes, but still, it’s the man himself. The man who remembered everything and turned it into beautiful songs.

Leave a Reply

Paul Luc Captures Longing For Live Music With New Song, “Just Sing”