One hundred fifty-nine thousand, one hundred and twenty-eight people have died of COVID in these United States this year; and one of them was John Prine.
He died on April 7. He was 73.
I had never heard of the famous songwriter and singer until I read an exhortation by my friend Todd Heifner. He wrote on Facebook, “There’s really no way to overstate what an incredible worthwhile investment is two hours of your time to watch the John Prine tribute attached below….” That was June 12.
I listen to my friends—sometimes—and this was one of those times. It took several days for me to listen all the way through that video special, but it took only minutes for me to be addicted to the style and substance of John Prine.
Not a day has passed since that Friday afternoon that I have not pulled up another recording of John Prine. Given what I now know, how is it that I have been so far out of the loop that both his life and his death came as a surprise. Surely, it is one of the redeeming elements of this wearisome year from nowhere.
Perhaps I had heard his nostalgic ballad called “Paradise” with its lonesome chorus, “Take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.” That now-missing locale sits halfway between my hometown of Murray and my much later work town of Owensboro. I’ve been there a time or two.
In another song about that county, Prine describes Sunday trips to church with his grandpa: “Well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and he’d take me with him too! Stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.” He explained in some interview that he frequently bent the truth by using words that provided plenty of rhyming options!
Maybe that was the case with his humorous ballad called “Spanish Pipedream.” A man sits in a bar somewhere watching a topless waitress do the hooch-coo. She urges him to blow up the TV, throw away the paper, move to the country, and plant himself a little garden—and then offers to go with him on that most unlikely journey. He summed up their lives together: “Had a lot of children, fed ‘em on peaches; They all found Jesus on their own.”
This evocative use of religion blended with the down-home humor and a wry take on ordinary things endeared him to me immediately. Like his memories of the family vacation, vocalized in his wonderful song “The Bottomless Lake”—“So if you’re ever goin’ on a big trip … take along a Bible in the backseat, read of David and Solomon ” because “you may never see your sweetheart again.”
It is unclear here and elsewhere what one has to do with the other, but they all witness to his growing up years emmeshed with the same kind of religion that filled my own days as a boy. And these religious references add depth to the charm that emanates from his kind, even sweet disposition.
Those qualities shine through in such tender lyrics as these: “I remember everything, things I can’t forget: the way you turned and smiled on me on the night that we first met.” Here and elsewhere, the sense of longing is overwhelming, even intoxicating.
Not all was kind and sweet, though, and his famous song “Sam Stone” testifies to his knowledge of the meaner, messy side of life. Surely, that one line was enough to make him famous: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” Too many of us know all too well what this means, and at least part of that meaning is the kind of emptiness that Jesus himself was meant to fill.
I don’t know what kind of religion Mr. Prine practiced, but I know his mashup of Chicago, Nashville, and Paradise reveals he knew much about life, love, and laughter—and there is a lot of Jesus in each of these, whether we name it or not.
And me? I’ll always remember the day my scrolling through Facebook (a waste of time, some say) sent me stumbling down a rabbit hole filled with the sights and sounds of John Prine. If I was a songwriter, my lyrics would include some version of those words I learned not far from Muhlenberg County, “Thank you, Jesus.”