Behind the Song: “Summer’s End” by John Prine

The changing of the seasons offers a forward-facing promise of renewal. But often, this promise hinges on the steep cost of painful reflection. Moving ahead means that parts of the past will be left behind, and John Prine’s evocative “Summer’s End” pinpoints poignant moments that stop progress in its tracks.

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In true Prine-fashion, the legendary songwriter took the opportunity here, and across the album Tree of Forgiveness, to tell someone else’s story. Carefully, he steps into the shoes of someone longing for a lost loved one. Simple, yet transcendent instances of imagery shape a story of heartbreak. Summer’s end is around the bend just flying / The swimming suits are on the line just drying, he recites with characteristic candidness. The verses conjure up the hollowness of holidays after a loss:

Valentines break hearts and minds at random / That ol’ Easter egg ain’t got a leg to stand on / Well I can see that you can’t win for trying / And New Year’s Eve is bound to leave you crying.

Co-written with Pat McLaughlin, “Summer’s End” was nominated for Best American Roots Song at the 60th annual Grammy Awards and was honored by American Songwriter as the Best Song of 2018.

A poet for the masses, Prine employs empathy to tell broadly resonant stories. Upon his self-debut in 1971, the artist established himself as a prolific storyteller. A young man hailing from small-town Illinois surprised his superiors when he explored themes like middle-aged Southern housewives (“Angel From Montgomery”), the destruction of archaic Kentucky farmland (“Paradise”), and the loneliness of senior citizens (“Hello in There”). Prine’s gift for harnessing subjective emotion led to an 18-album career that touched countless lives. Though he left this world too soon, Prine’s craftsmanship will endure through its influence in preceding generations.

Prine’s lyrical dexterity exhibited throughout “Summer’s End” allows most listeners to find a home in some of the sentiment. Taking it a step further, he created a music video that told a more unique story of suffering. To bring the song to life Prine enlisted documentary filmmakers Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, best known for the Academy Award-nominated Heroin(e). The husband-and-wife duo approached their first music video project like they do their documentary work. This meant using the resources available to them like West Virginians—the people, the land, the houses—to create a visual story.

“We reacted to things more than we set things up,” McMillion Sheldon told the Tennessean in a 2018 interview. We certainly tried to make a plan; we had a script, but in many of the scenes, the best moments were ones that were spontaneous.”

Sitting beside an empty chair, Prine begins strumming through the introduction. The following scenes show a young girl raised by her grandfather after her mother passed. The depicted situation remains cryptic until a brief flash of a TV report about the opioid crisis confirms the viewer’s fears about the direction of this devastation. In Appalachia and other deeply affected areas of the country, this grandparent-raising-grandchildren is a common familial dynamic.

Though the video footage is not as universal, it is no less important. In fact, Prine felt it was the hushed nature surrounding this specific hurt that made this video message critical. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were nearly 70,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2018—up from 38,329 in 2010. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that two out of three drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid. The missing parent in this phenomenon is referred to as a member of the “Lost Generation.”

“The opioid crisis is tearing American families apart,” John Prine wrote in a press release upon the video release. “I love what Elaine and Kerrin have done with my song for this video. I hope a lot of people see it.”

The video is dedicated to “Max,” the son of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who died in 2017 due to a combination of drugs, including opioids. Prine considered Max a part of his extended family and performed at his memorial. The credits include information for those struggling with addiction, providing links and phone numbers for SAMHSA and MusiCares.

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