John Prine: The Guy You Hope He Is

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(This story originally ran in the May 2018 issue of American Songwriter. We are republishing it in the wake of John’s passing.)

Four guitars, ten boxes of unfinished lyrics, and one heralded songwriter holed up last year at the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville.

“The house detective was probably keeping an eye on me,” says the songwriter, John Prine, who was attempting to complete his first album of original material since Taylor Swift was 15 years old.

One of those lyric sheets had a cryptic second verse … something about a wooden crutch talking to a busted tooth. Prine is big on personification — in one of his latest songs, the Vulcan statue in Birmingham pines for his lost love while being flustered into indifference by the bumblebees that swarm his head — but this crutch/tooth thing wasn’t working.

“I used to think I knew what I was doing, 40 years ago, but now I have no idea how it works,” he thought, pondering a writing process that has brought him Grammy trophies, a PEN Songwriter Award, four Cadillacs in the driveway, and respect and admiration from Bob Dylan, Jason Isbell, Stephen King, Bonnie Raitt, Roger Waters, and most anyone else with two ears and a cracked heart. At the moment, though, that writing process was stuck in stick and molar mode.

That’s when the answer came.

“Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/ It bounces around ‘til my my soul comes clean,” is what came into his head. Most mortals would have stopped there. But a “Yes, and …” impulse came to him like a package from John Prine Central.

“And when my soul gets clean, and hung out to dry/ I’m gonna make you laugh, until you cry,” is the next thing he wrote.

Prine writes the funniest sad songs in the world. With few exceptions, the joke isn’t the point. The joke is there to make us put down our guard, to lower our defenses for the staggering left hook that is coming to deliver the knockout.

And sometimes the chuckle and the punch wallop at once: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,” for instance. Or the line in “Far From Me” where he asks, “‘Will you still see me tomorrow?’” The answer comes back, “‘No, I have too much to do,” and then Prine offers the bruised commentary: “Well a question ain’t really a question, if you know the answer, too.”

*****

Bill Prine, John’s dad, was from western Kentucky. He headed to Maywood, Illinois, to work his ass off in a factory and to raise a family with his wife, Verna.

“He rented the same damn house for 38 years,” John says. “He could have paid for it three times. He always thought he’d make enough money to go back to Kentucky.”

Hank Williams was Bill Prine’s hero. Bill would put a radio in the window, always facing the south, to pull in WSM-AM from Nashville or WJJD in Chicago. And he’d drink beer by the quart. And he’d often offer up advice and philosophy to his three sons.

“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” was prime advice.

Not a believer in reincarnation or heavenly reward, he was also fond of saying, “When you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead.”

“I wanted to impress my dad,” Prine says. “So I started writing songs, because I wanted him to know that I could.”

By July of 1971, John Prine had written songs that had propelled him to a recording contract with Atlantic, and he had completed one of the greatest debut albums in the history of American music. Decades later, songs like “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and “Paradise” are masterpieces that are a part of every Prine concert. Prine put his father into the chorus of “Paradise”: “Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River, where Paradise lay/ I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

That summer, Prine borrowed a tape recorder, brought a three-quarter inch tape home to Maywood, and set the recorder up in the living room. The tape held his debut record. He played it for Bill, who got up and walked to the darkened dining room when “Paradise” came on. Bill didn’t return to the living room for several minutes, but when he did, John asked him why he’d left.

“He said, ‘I wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox,’” John says. “He loved jukeboxes. It wasn’t until later on that I realized he didn’t want me to see him get emotional. I was writing songs just to get his attention. If he’d been into ballet, I’d have been Nureyev.”

A month later, Bill Prine died. He was never sick. He just had a massive heart attack one day, on the front porch in Maywood.

“My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon,” Prine wrote in “Mexican Home.” “I sipped bourbon and cried with a friend by the light of the moon/ So it’s hurry, hurry, step right up, it’s a matter of life or death/ The sun is going down, and the moon is just holding its breath.”

Many years later, Prine’s older brother, Doug, had a near-death experience. In the aftermath of that, John and Doug were listening to George Jones and talking about life’s fragility and wonder. Doug said that when he flat-lined, he saw Bill, Verna, and the rest of the family, waiting by the river.

“I said, ‘Dad was in heaven?’” John remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘How do you get to heaven, believing when you’re dead you’re a dead peckerhead?’”

*****

John Prine’s songwriting path is inspirational and laudable, but not always instructive. That’s because, unlike the rest of us, John Prine has access to John Prine’s brain. It’s like his own private fishing pond, though he’s happy to give us whatever fish he hauls in. There are no songwriters out there being called “The next John Prine,” because any attempt at writing like Prine inevitably results in dull mimicry at best.

“I live down deep inside my head, where long ago I made my bed,” he sings in “The Lonesome Friends Of Science,” one of the ten gems that make up The Tree Of Forgiveness, the new album that everyone but Prine figured was long overdue.

Prine is the most natural of natural songwriters, but he is easily and willingly distracted from a blank page: Thus, his wife and manager Fiona Prine’s insistence that he take a room at the Omni to finish the album.

At the hotel, at least there was an elevator between his room and a good long walk, and a valet line between John and his car.

“This was the first week of July, and I was booked to go into the studio with Dave Cobb the 15th of July,” he says. “I didn’t have but about four songs. I started going through boxes of lyrics, drinking Handsome Johnny’s (that’s vodka and diet ginger ale, with lemon or lime), looking at these songs and going, ‘No wonder I didn’t finish this fucker.’ I was waiting and waiting until the song knocked at my door, but I had to put some sort of effort into it, finally. You’ve got to get in there at some point and pull the tooth out.”

So, that’s instruction: Pull the tooth out.

Prine, by the way, hates pulling the tooth out.

“I’m scared of writing,” he says, an admission akin to Michael Jordan copping to a fear of dunking. But hanging your soul out to dry can be a bitch.

“You’re having to go into your psyche, and dig up things that aren’t pleasant,” he says. “It scares me, because I don’t know what’s in there. I don’t know if I want to lie down on the couch and tell that story. But if you do lie down on the couch and tell that story, you may come up with some common human truth, so you know you’re not bullshitting the bullshitter.”

*****

Everybody else has a slow and treacherous learning curve. Not Prine.

When he started writing songs as a kid, he wrote a few cute songs inspired by Roger Miller. But then he began writing John Prine songs, ones that stand to this day as marvels. They all begin with opening lines that are wholly conversational but that are open invitations to the story that Prine intends to tell.

“When I was a child, my family would travel, down to western Kentucky, where my parents were born/ There’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn.”

Or “Sam Stone came home to his wife and family after serving in the conflict overseas/ And the time that he served had shattered all his nerves, and left a little shrapnel in his knee.”

Or “We had an apartment in the city/ Me and Loretta liked living there.”

He wrote these things when he was wearing a U.S. Postal Service uniform, delivering mail in Maywood. He was also working on his guitar chops at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and most weeks he’d join Old Town school teachers and students at an open-mic held at a Chicago club called The Fifth Peg.

One night in 1970, he and several beers worked up the nerve to express displeasure at the other open-mic songs. Goaded by his friends, he ambled to the stage to sing “Hello In There” (then called “Old Folks”), “Paradise,” and “Sam Stone” (then called “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues”). After that, the Fifth Peg’s owner offered him a weekly gig. He was 23, and he soon became a superstar to the dozens of listeners who heard him, first at the Fifth Peg and then at the Earl of Old Town.

“The hardest thing was to accept the compliments, to go from nothing to ‘You’re a genius,’” he says. “I was playing with an erector set and invented the atom bomb by mistake.”

Prine says that without chesty self-regard. He was as shocked by the developments as anyone else. He’d quickly gone from outsider to local hero, and the whole thing felt odd and irregular.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert wrote a story in October of 1970 that proclaimed Prine as a “stunning power” who “appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight.”

Forty-seven years later, Country Music Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall would echo that: “John is a humble man who has nothing to be humble about,” Hall says.

In late spring of 1971, Prine was the beneficiary of the single most selfless act in the history of singer-songwriterdom. Prine’s buddy Steve Goodman was opening a series of concerts at the Quiet Knight for Kris Kristofferson, who was ascending to superstardom. Kristofferson was taken by Goodman’s songs (including the then-new/now-classic “City Of New Orleans”), his singing, and his deft guitar-playing, and after shows he was telling Goodman that he wanted to shine a light on him and help him to a major label recording contract.

Every time Kristofferson would gush over Goodman, Goodman would say something along the lines of “If you think I’m good, you’ve gotta hear my friend, John.”

Keep in mind that Kristofferson was offering the key to the kingdom into which Goodman desperately sought entry. The natural reaction to such attention is a hearty thank you and a conversation about how to make this fame and fortune thing happen.

But, no: “You’ve gotta hear my friend, John.”

Kristofferson didn’t want to hear anybody else, but, after a week of pestering, he agreed to go with Goodman, actress Samantha Eggar, and singer Paul Anka to go listen to Prine at the Earl of Old Town. Prine was done and the place was empty by the time the group got there, but the owner pulled chairs from tables, Goodman beamed, Eggar yawned, and Kristofferson and Anka looked to the stage with “Whaddaya got, kid?” countenances.

And a sheepish John Prine blew them away.

“By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else,” Kristofferson wrote in the liner notes of Prine’s first album, an album made possible by his championing of the young song-poet. “Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going.”

Kristofferson likely both over and under-estimated where Prine was going. In a sense, Prine was already there, having penned songs that would tickle and trouble listeners for the next five decades. But Kristofferson couldn’t have figured that Prine would continue to write at that level over a lifetime, or that the reward for unabashed and unmistakable idiosyncrasy could be communal adulation.

“I feel like I’ve gotten away with something,” Prine says. “Like I committed the crime and outlived the statute of limitations.”

*****

I hadn’t met John Prine yet, but I knew his bass player, Dave Jacques. Dave and I were on a plane together, bound for somewhere or another, and I asked Dave what John was like.

“Everybody asks me that,” Dave said, not unpleasantly.

“Yeah, well, what do you tell them?”

“I tell them that he is exactly the guy that you think and hope he is,” Dave said.

Dave didn’t mean that in some kind of “Hey, I don’t want to spoil your idolatry with the cold, hard truth” way. He meant what he said: John Prine is exactly the guy you think and hope he is. There is no separation between this artist and this art. There is no way that Prine could write those songs and not be the true blue elevated embodiment of empathy, humor, and honesty.

You don’t write “Sally used to play with her hula hoops, now she tells her problems to therapy groups” without laughing hard and loving Sally.

You don’t write “Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see/ That’s why last night and this morning always look the same to me” without an innate understanding of scuffling loss.

You don’t write “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers get wilder every day/ Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say ‘Hello in there.’” You don’t write that, because you can’t, and he did. And he did it when he was in his early 20s, when such an awareness should have been impossible.

You can’t fake being John Prine.

If you could, lots of people would be working that gig right now.

*****

There’s no space here for the whole story, in which John Prine writes extraordinary song after extraordinary song, forms his own independent record label at a time when such things just weren’t done, wonders if he’ll forever be a cult favorite, then records a 1991 album called The Missing Years that brings him to the forefront of popular music discussions … then wins multiple Grammy awards … then moves from the “respected veteran” category to “hero of American music” status … then beats cancer, and then beats cancer again … then faces the death of his grand friend and manager Al Bunetta … then restructures his independent label, with his own family at the helpful helm.

Anyway, there’s a lot to the story.

And it all leads up to John Prine, holed up at the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville, working through unfinished lyrics and writing “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine/ It bounces around until my soul comes clean.” And then the thing about hanging his soul out to dry, and making you laugh until you cry.

After he wrote that, he recorded it on The Tree Of Forgiveness, along with nine other songs, including “When I Get To Heaven,” a rollicking rumination on the afterlife.

“I’m gonna get a cocktail,” he sings, while kazoos make kazoo sounds and friends sing along. “Vodka and ginger ale/ I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.”

After finishing the album, Prine went a while before hearing it. But he found himself in Memphis, and Matt Ross-Spang, who engineered The Tree Of Forgiveness, is the chief engineer at Sun Records in Memphis, where Elvis Presley changed American culture by recording “That’s All Right, Mama” on July 5, 1954.

Prine wanted to hear the album through studio speakers, and so he and seven others converged on Sun.

They listened, and Prine realized in the moment that this album was much more personal than he’d thought it was when writing it. They got to the final song, “When I Get To Heaven,” and they all roared at the line about drinking Handsome Johnny’s in Heaven, and resuming Prine’s old smoking habits. And the kazoos were a hoot, too.

Then playback reached the song’s last verse, about reuniting with family: Good old brother Doug, cousin Jackie, and Prine’s mother’s sisters down in western Kentucky. And mom and dad.

“And I always will remember these words my daddy said,” Prine says at the end of the verse. “He said, ‘Buddy, when you’re dead … you’re a dead peckerhead!’”

Everybody roared, like they were watching a Richard Pryor routine.

“I hope to prove him wrong.”

Eight people doubled over in laugher.

And then they wept.

Out back, where Elvis used to park his Cadillac, John Prine’s soul hung on the line, drying in the hot Memphis breeze.

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