Grief is a complex thing. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t all go through grief in easily understood stages from denial to acceptance. Instead, there are as many ways to respond to loss as there are people who suffer loss. And, if we are blessed to live long enough, we all lose someone important to us. In a time such as ours, losses are becoming multiplied.
On April 7, 2020 John Prine died. I did not know Prine personally but like many who heard his songs, I felt like I did. Not only did I feel like I knew John, but all the people he sang about, who represents the whole of the human race. On the night he died, I stayed up listening to his music and reflecting on his life. I want to share this experience with you.
“I guess I just process death differently than some folks. Realizing you’re not going to see that person again is always the most difficult part about it. But that feeling settles, and then you are glad you had that person in your life.”—John Prine
John Prine is dead. He died like many are dying these days. Complications from Covid-19. It is no respecter of age, gender, race, fame, or anything else we use to set ourselves apart.
I have no doubt John Prine was a man of faith, as unorthodox as it was. What his theology lacked, his compassion made up for. No one I know had a better understanding of the human spirit than Prine did. His songs told the stories of simple, silly, suffering souls. I’ve listened to them for 38 years. They are like old friends. Each time we get together, they have something to say that may seem like the same, but it is fresh in the retelling.
Tonight I will stay up with these friends and share their stories with those of you who care to listen — tonight or in the days to come. I hope you will. I think they’ll help you understand not just Prine, but me, and you.
John Prine was a second-generation Kentucky. Like my Dad says, he had to cross the bridge once each year to renew his citizenship.
He wrote this song for his father, who used to take the whole family back to Muhlenberg County, where Paradise lay. John was in the service when his daddy wrote him a letter that Mr. Peabody’s coal train had hauled it away.
It’s hard to say where Paradise went from there, but I have a hunch John is taking a stroll through it now.
John was certainly a child that grew old, gracefully and gratefully. He hung around long enough to teach a generation, even two, to sing songs of the soul. As beloved as he was, and still is, he conveyed a spirit of loneliness so deep you’ve got nothing to say.
But John had plenty to say and these things will be said for generations to come.
In an age of pompous platitudes, dangerous dogma, and hurting certainty, we need someone to remind us that our job is not to push our personal perspective on people, but to be who we’ve been created to be and defer to the One who truly knows us and wants what is best for us.
We had that someone in John Prine.
I first heard John Prine on a PBS special in December of 1982. I went to the record store the next day and bought Prime Prine. I brought it home, put it on the turntable, plugged in my earphones, sat in a chair and closed my eyes. When Sam Stone came on, I began to cry. I was 19. And I cried like no teenager has ever cried before.
I’m listening to this song on the night John died. I’m staying up all night listening to his music. I’m drinking a beer and I thought I’d be crying into it. But I’m not. I am heartened by a quote of John’s I saw on Twitter tonight. He says:
“I guess I just process death differently than some folks. Realizing you’re not going to see that person again is always the most difficult part about it. But that feeling settles, and then you are glad you had that person in your life.”
No, I’m not crying tonight. I am grateful. I’m happy I got to see John six times over the years. I’m glad John hung around long enough to share his music with a whole new generation. And I’m delighted he no longer has to suffer.
It only took four decades for John Prine to become an overnight sensation. He always had a cadre of fervent fans who knew the words to all his songs, but he never made a splash in the pool of popular music. That is, until his fans played those songs to their children, taught them to play the three chords that held them together and passed on a deep appreciation for music that speaks to the soul. Some of those children grew up to be musicians themselves. Sturgill Simpson. Brandi Carlile. Jason Isbell. Kacey Musgraves.
I’ve heard it said that the definition of faith is planting a seed in the ground knowing full well you won’t be around to see it grow into a tree. If this is true, and I believe it is, John Prine was a man of great faith. May God rest his soul.