The Zen of John Prine (In Three Lines) by Jason Wilber

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John Prine’s longtime guitarist on three essential Prine lines

Jason Wilber. “Humor and sadness; joy and sorrow; innocence and experience. Gently he points out the absurdity that fills much of our lives. Somehow he does it without judgement or rancor. He laughs, cries, and shakes his head right along with the rest of us. You can tell he’s puzzled by it too.”


By JASON WILBER

I spent the last 24 years standing on many a darkened stage with John Prine, as his guitar player, and more recently his musical director. Watching, listening, and playing along while John spun tales of love and life and humanity. Staring out at the faces of an attentive, appreciative audience. Often I reminded myself to be present and appreciate the special moment we were all sharing. I always knew it would end someday, but that hasn’t made it any easier. John Prine and his songs have been a big part of my life.

In his songs, John beautifully illustrates the dualities of life. Humor and sadness; joy and sorrow; innocence and experience. Gently he points out the absurdity that fills much of our days. Somehow he does it without judgement or rancor. He laughs, cries, and shakes his head right along with the rest of us. You can tell: he’s puzzled by it all, too.

The Zen Studies Society describes Zen as “the direct experience of what we might call ultimate reality, or the absolute, yet it is not separate from the ordinary, the relative.” That’s also a pretty good description of John Prine’s songwriting. Within the ordinary, he found something much deeper.

I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite Prine song, but here are three passages that to me beautifully illustrate the Zen of John Prine.

1. “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, and come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?” 

From “Angel From Montgomery.” 


I’ve heard John describe his premise for “Angel from Montgomery” as a song about “a woman who feels older than she is.” That’s textbook John Prine. Simple but eloquent. There are many entire songs that aren’t as good as this one idea: A woman who feels older than she is. 

I played “Angel from Montgomery” with John hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It was one of his most requested and well-known songs, largely thanks to Bonnie Raitt’s classic version. The song was always well-received, but this line in particular always got shouts and applause. By that I mean that during the song, people listening were so moved that they cried out and/or applauded in reaction to this line as John sang it. They couldn’t even wait until the end of the song. 

The sentiment behind those words provokes such a response, people identify with them so much, that they are moved in the moment. It seems to touch some deep nerve. We’ve lived this. We’ve felt it. We’ve wondered about it for someone else, or ourselves. After everything you go through in life, how can you have nothing to say? About your day, or your work, or your feelings?

Life is bittersweet. The joy only intensifies the pain, and vice versa. 

“Angel from Montgomery,” John Prine & the band, featuring Jason Wilber on slide guitar (check out his solo), Dave Jacques on bass.

2. “You know Kathy, she still laughs with me, but she waits just a second too long.”

From “Far From Me

“Far From Me” is a wonderful, waltzing ballad. John wrote it about the first girl that broke his heart. “She made me a songwriter,” he often said when introducing the song. If you’ve never experienced the end of a romantic relationship, this line might not touch you. But for the other 99.9% of us, it cuts deep.

One piece of advice often given to writers is, “don’t tell us, show us”. This line is about as fine an example of that as you’ll find. With this couplet, John perfectly paints the twilight shade of feelings fading. 

John sets a wistful mood with simple striking images. A boy waits for his girlfriend as she closes up the cafe where she waits tables. She turns off the lights. She cleans the spoons. The radio plays. The scene has been well set by the time this line comes along midway through. The singer wishes things were the way they were before. But he knows they aren’t, and probably never will be again. 

John Prine, & Band, “Far From Me,” Live on ‘Sessions at West 54th, 2001.


3. “The compass rolled around and around.” 

From “Bottomless Lake.”

I was interviewing John once for a radio show I used to host. [In Search of a Song]. We were talking about his song “Bottomless Lake.” I told him one of my favorite lines was the one about the compass because it reminded me of an old movie. He said that it was his favorite line, too, and for the same reason. In movies of the 1940s and ’50s, a compass gyrating wildly was often used to show us that the world had gone topsy-turvy. You knew the characters in the story were about to get shipwrecked, travel through time, or be otherwise disoriented. 

John’s song was inspired by a childhood family fishing trip. His dad parked their car at the end of a long wooden pier that reached out over the lake. Towards the end of the day it suddenly got dark and a violent storm blew in. John’s family hurried to the car to escape the torrential downpour. Quickly they piled in with all their fishing and picnic gear and started driving back up the pier towards shore. John often said, “My mom didn’t think my dad was the best driver.”

About halfway up the pier, the rain became so intense that it overwhelmed the windshield wipers. On all sides the windows were covered with the rushing rain water. John’s mother covered her face and shrieked with terror. She thought they’d driven off the pier and were sinking down into the lake!

At first blush, John’s story is cartoon fantasy, not unlike Yellow Submarine. The family peering out the windows of their old American sedan as it descends through the depths. Passing the time telling jokes, eating what’s left of the fried chicken, soothing the baby, and reading the bible.

For anyone with a family, which is most of us, we can see the metaphor. In life we find ourselves bound together in a mutual journey with this small (or large) group of people. All together thrust into situations we never anticipated or maybe even considered possible. How deep is the lake? When will the food run out? No one can say for sure. “We’ll be there when we get there”, as many a father has said.

A Zen koan is a short riddle or phrase that is intended to prompt reflection. I don’t pretend to know anything about Zen koans, but many of the lines from John’s songs have served a similar purpose in my life. Both as a songwriter and as a performer, John Prine has a special ability to connect with people on a deep level. Not from a position of superiority, but rather through empathy and commiseration. By laughing at his own foibles, he draws us in. He found ways to tell us things we already knew, but couldn’t quite put into words ourselves.

The man may be gone, but his music lives on. When John sings, “Oooo baby, it’s a big old goofy world,” we can all nod our heads and agree. It sure is.

So long, boss, we love you.


4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you so much Jason. For me and many other Vietnam Veterans John was our guy. Primarily for Sam Stone but most especially the poignant line in Hello in There: “We lost Davey in the Korean War. Still don’t know what for. Doesn’t matter anymore.” Your beautiful guitar and peaceful presence accentuated John’s songs and performances for us all. Peace and blessings.

  2. Thank you Jason! Thank you for taking the time and care to give us, the fans a glimpse into the beautiful and timeless friendship you shared with “the boss”. I can only begin to imagine how much more he was to you than a boss.

    I feel so blessed to have watched you grow with him over the years, and listen to your strokes and tone mellow out like a nice smoky bourbon. Ah, the stories you could tell. I’m certain you’ve learned a trick or three from the man.

    I have a pic of you, John and Phil on stage at the Palace in Louisville I’ll try to get sent you way.
    Pam

  3. Jason,
    Thank you so much for this article and moreover, being part of John’s band for so many years. Your additions to the songs are incredibly tasteful and never cross over to getting in the way of the message. I have been following “The Singing Mailman’s” career since the 70’s and the old adage that things get better with age runs true in John’s case. You have been a huge part of that, Jason and your compliments to the music have been wonderful. That goes for Dave Jaques as well. I will miss seeing you three on stage, but the memories I have will absolutely sustain me. Peace.

  4. Thank you for writing this Jason. I first saw John perform in a high school gym in Rockford Illinois. Jimmy Buffett opened for John if memory servers me correctly. I saw him many times over the years. With Steve Goodman, Bonnie Raitt and most recently twice at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I remember the first time I saw you playing with him and I was very pleased to hear your tasteful work on his songs. One of the more recent shows was with Old Crow Medicine Show and it was a young crowd. I was so pleasantly suprised when all these young fans were singing the lyrics with John. They knew and were moved by his songs just like I was ever since I first heard him. We shared an Army experience of having done basic training at Fort Dix Army Base. His verse about “Donald envisioning romantic scenes after midnight in the stillness of his barracks latrines” just instantly transported me back to basic training and described something I had witnessed at a different time in the same place, but could never have described in such an eloquent way. In so many of his songs he captures in words all the emotional depth of the human experience. I greive his loss for myself and the world. I hope to hear you again solo or with who ever you work with next.

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