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God and John Prine

You try to make the best of things. Stay home and stay busy. TV is on…or a book is laid out on the table. For snatches of time you can almost forget what’s raging outside.

And then something jars you back. Somebody you know is fighting this thing. It could be a friend from work, or a neighbor, or Tom Hanks, or Jackson Browne. And you’re back in the moment again, because this thing is remorseless and indiscriminate.

Things are so surreal right now, we’re kinda digging ourselves into our own holes. I check the news for the latest info and that’s all. Facebook has has become even more of a virtual lunatic asylum, so I’m using that to stay in touch with friends, not to diagnose online patients with my non-existent medical degree. Admirable self-denial these days.

JohnPrine1And then yesterday I got a note from a friend. John Prine was in critical condition with Covid-19.

I had to catch my breath. I really did.

If you want to know how great a songwriter John Prine is, consider this. The man generally acknowledged as the greatest of all time is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s favorite songwriter is John Prine.

That’s how good he is.

He’s an American treasure is what he is. And if this thing takes him from us the days are gonna be less bright, and the nights are gonna be even darker. I’ve never lived in a world without John Prine, and I don’t want to start now.

The songs. “Hello in There”. “Sam Stone”. “Angel From Montgomery”. “Illegal Smile”. “Paradise”. “Souvenirs”. “Lake Marie”.  “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”. “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round”. “6 O’Clock News”. “Jesus – The Missing Years”.  “Picture Show”. “When I Get To Heaven”. There’s a hundred more.

It’s one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of American music.

Each song simple and ultimately devastating. Nobody could write lines like Prine. You hear something like this…

“there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”

or this…

“how the hell can a person / Go to work in the mornin’ / And come home in the evenin’/ And have nothin’ to say”

or this..

“I know a guy that’s got a lot to lose / He’s a pretty nice fellow but he’s kind of confused /He’s got muscles in his head that ain’t never been used”

…..and as a songwriter you have the same feeling a guitarist had when he first heard Hendrix. Utter defeat. You’re never gonna be able to do that….no matter how hard you try.

But still. What a bar to look up at.

I can’t tell you how many times I turned to Prine for comfort over the years. Or for a kick in the ass. He can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same song. He’s never cruel. His songs are soaked with empathy. His characters are always approachable. We know them. They’re us. Old folks or veterans or lonely housewives. His simple sounding songs are majestically layered….you come back to them again and again and find something new each time. There is no better road companion. He’s Mark Twain with a guitar.

“Who writes songs like this?” asked John Mellencamp. He then answered his own question. “God and John Prine.”

His music is American music. It defies any other categorization. It’s folk. It’s country. It’s rock and roll. It’s the blues. It’s stand-up comedy and high drama. It’s everything. For reasons unknown to little ol’ me, he’s still not in the rock and roll hall a fame. Together with Warren Zevon, it’s the hall’s most glaring omission. I suspect that will change. I just hope he’s still here to accept it himself.

When I first started to write songs, I studied Prine’s catalog. How did he do that? Musically there’s nothing complicated going on. “I learned 3 chords and they sounded pretty good to me so I never learned any others I guess” is how he put it. But the melodies are gorgeous. The lyrics are like eavesdropping on long lost friends. Most of what I know about songwriting I nicked from John Prine. I’m still at the bottom of the hill looking up, but my plan it to keep putting in the work, crawling on my hands and knees if I have to.

He beat back cancer. Twice. He drives himself on tour. His backstage rider includes $12 deli trays and a few 6-packs. He’s loved and lovable.

I’ve been listening to nothing but his music for the last 24 hours. “Long Monday” is on as I finish this up. I shit you not…

Gonna be a long Monday / Sittin’ all alone on a mountain
By a river that has no end / Gonna be a long Monday
Stuck like the tick of a clock / That’s come unwound – again

And it is.

The latest news from his wife is that John is now stable. So sing it boys and girls. Raise your voices. We can’t do this alone. Maybe he hears us.

This is real folks. Stay home.

In a bit..

–tf

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