One Year Later

This week is not only the week after Easter—always a good time of year—it is also the one-year anniversary of the death of John Prine. The singer-songwriter was stricken with COVID last year, spent an extended time in the University of Vanderbilt Medical Center, and finally succumbed—on April 7, 2020. He was 73.


I didn’t know about it when it happened.  In fact, I didn’t know about John Prine. I didn’t know until June 12, when Birmingham friend Todd Heifner posted some version of this on his Facebook page: “Watch this tribute. You will not be sorry.”


I pay attention to what my friends write and post. I watched that video, all two hours of it. I am glad I did because I was converted, on the spot; and it didn’t take all one hundred and twenty minutes. I am not sure when it happened; all I know is that when I began the video, I had no interest in John Prine, and when it ended I was thoroughly and permanently a fan.


I have listened every day to either an interview or a performance, some live and some from his albums. I have acquired four CDs and thus exposed myself to a much wider range of his imagination.


Consider this 1972 song:


While out sailing on the ocean, while out sailing on the sea
Bumped into the Savior. He said, “Pardon me.”
I said, “Jesus, you look tired.”
He said, “Jesus, so do you. Oh, sit down son ’cause I got some fat to chew.”


You see, everybody needs somebody that they can talk to;
Someone to open up their ears and let that trouble through
Now you don’t have to sympathize or care what they may do;
But everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.


These Dylanesque lyrics describe a chance encounter with Jesus; but instead of John telling Jesus all his own troubles, as the old gospel song goes, John ends up listening to Jesus.


Well, he spoke to me of morality, starvation, pain, and sin.
Matter of fact, the whole dang time I only got few words in.
But I won’t squawk, let ‘im talk; hell, it’s been a long, long time.
Any friend that’s been turned down is bound to be a friend of mine.


It is this flipping of the script that so intrigues me. Instead of the old familiar story of us pouring out our souls to the Savior, it is the Savior—Jesus himself—who needs to pour out his soul to us: perhaps to confess, to complain, or to criticize.


Now we sat there for an hour or two just a-eatin’ that Gospel pie
When around the bend come a terrible wind and lightning lit the sky.
He said, “So long son, I gotta run. I appreciate you listening to me.”
And I believe I heard him sing these words as he skipped out across the sea:


Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.
Someone to open up their ears and let that trouble through.
Now you don’t have to sympathize or care what they may do.
But everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.
Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.


I don’t know that I have ever read a Bible scholar suggest this way of looking at Jesus. And I don’t know that John Prine wants us to take it seriously. But just the slightly irreverent twist on an established way of thinking about Jesus was enough to catch my attention and keep it.

I know little about John Prine’s connection with Jesus, or church, or organized Christianity. It is clear he was raised in the church—see the lyrics to “Grandpa was a Carpenter.” Regardless, I embrace his constant use of religious language, especially stuff like this chorus from the 1978 song “Fish and Whistle:”


Father, forgive us for what we must do.
You forgive us, we’ll forgive you.
We’ll forgive each other ‘till we both turn blue.
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.


Some of you, no doubt, will need to forgive me for this very column. And I don’t even like to fish! But heaven—I’m all for heaven, and I hope to see John Prine there one day. I’ll sit down next to Jesus, and we both will sing along the chorus of every single John Prine song.




(April 2021)