Last Friday I went to a John Prine concert at the Louisville Palace with my friend Les Rust (see “A Character in the Making“). My history with Prine goes back to a PBS documentary on him I saw in December, 1982. Les goes back further. He saw John in a Louisianna dive not much bigger than the Skyline Diner where we had our pre-concert meal.
Prine is now 72. He has survived two bouts of oral cancer. His voice sounds more like the grinding gears of semi than a virtuoso. But his lyrics speak God-given redemption to the human condition. John took his young son to one of his concerts and asked him what he thought.
It’s okay Dad, but it’s not real. Not like baseball. That’s real.
I beg to differ with a Prine heir, but let me tell you. His music is real. A whole genre of musicians look to him as their aesthetic ancestor. Jason Isbell. Brandi Carlile. Sturgill Simpson. Kasey Musgraves. Countless young artists not even conceived when Prine gave into a dare from friends and sang his songs of sorrow, loneliness, grief. When he was finished with his set, nobody made a sound. Stunned to silence. He didn’t know it at the time, though. The manager walked right up to him and offered him a job. He wondered, “Doing what? Dishes.”
That was 1969. In 1970, an up-and-coming media critic named stumbled into this Fifth Peg not knowing what to expect. Here is what he wrote:
He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.
Prine’s songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He’s closer to Hank Williams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. “In my songs,” he says, “I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message. ~ Roger Ebert.
Here’s what one American bard and Nobel Prize winner now has to say about John Prine:
Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the Nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about “Sam Stone” the soldier junky daddy and “Donald and Lydia,” where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. ~ Bob Dylan.
Prine’s imaginative genius:
I am an old woman, named after my mother.
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were thunder; lightning was desire
This old house would’ve burned down a long time ago. (“Angel from Montgomery “)
His poetic longing:
Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this morning
Always look the same to me. (“Souvenirs”)
His unique take on heartache:
Blue umbrella rests upon my shoulder
Hides the pain while the rain makes up my mind
Now my feet are wet from thinking this thing over
And it’s been so long since I felt the warm sunshine
Just give me one good reason
And I promise I won’t ask you anymore.
Just give me one extra season
So I can figure out the other four. (“Blue Umbrella”)
Prine’s “The Tree of Forgiveness” tour runs through the end of 2018 and includes stops in the Netherlands and Ireland. God only knows if this will be his last. Hell, he may die on stage. But what a way to go. Singing his soul out and dancing a jig. Maybe he’ll even besinging about when he gets to heaven.
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand? (“When I Get to Heaven”)