RIP John Prine: The Mark Twain of Songwriting
On April 7th 2020, John Prine died from complications associated with the COVID-19 virus, he was 73 years old. Few artists come along that are equally as beloved as they are brilliant as John Prine was. His legacy is one of genius level songwriting, unmatched wit, and the uncanny ability to empathize lyrically with the struggles of the human condition. Prine began as a songwriter in Chicago, alongside fellow master Steve Goodman, playing small rooms and gaining a following. Goodman would get a break opening for Kris Kristofferson, but when Kris tried to compliment Goodman, the story goes that Goodman said, “If you think I’m good, you should hear my friend John!” Kristofferson took him up on that and went to see Prine, where he had him do a private show for him after his gig that was his first major break. Prine would go on to sign with Atlantic Records and release his self-titled debut, which is also his masterpiece, giving the world such songs as “Sam Stone”, “Angel From Montgomery”, and “Hello In There”, among others. Prine release 18 studio albums and 4 live records, as well as guest appearances and having written many a song for a better-known artist, his credits are legendary.
I first heard John Prine’s music in college, as I was an aspiring songwriter and poet trying to find my voice amongst the masses. I knew I wasn’t Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, though I tried them on for good measure. I would listen to all these songwriters, trying to find something that really hit hoe, it was the artists like Prine and Townes Van Zandt, who really seemed to understand the real life problems people face, and in poetic ways. Like Townes, John Prine had a way with humor to talk about the brutality of life with a very witty approach, sort of like an Oscar Wilde for modern times. It was a thing that artists like Steve Earle, Gillan Welch, and other more contemporary songwriters seemed to gain influence from. The ability to tell a darker story with beautiful empathy and a bit of sarcasm, made these songs resonate with people in ways they never have before. It was a lot like the folk singer boom in the early 60s with Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk singing snarky tunes about current times but also seriously addressing political unrest. In many ways Prine was like Dylan, but more of a Mark Twain humorist with a guitar. He had a charm that no else had, and likely no one ever will again. As a struggling writer, I found a lot of inspiration in the lyrics but also comfort in the way he could be so gentle with a tragic tale of the heart.
Last night I was listening to some John Prine albums and reading through tweets online about what he meant to the culture. It was amazing to see the outpouring of emotion not just from artists like Jason Isbell, who was a personal friend of Prine’s, but also artists, reporters, and literary writers, like Haniif Abdurraqib who summed up what a lot of us felt about his passing in a brilliantly tender way:
I am so sad about John Prine. He'd survived so much. His work taught me a great deal about compassionate, thoughtful writing — writing that understood a love rooted in the critical and curious was the love worth pursuing. I'm thankful we got him for as long as we did. Still sad.
— Hanif Abdurraqib (@NifMuhammad) April 8, 2020
The life and career of John Prine will live on in his music and influence on the culture but losing him to the virus that is overwhelming society as a whole seems morbidly poetic. John was a critic of political power, from day one, with songs like “Sam Stone” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”, often calling out the leaders on behalf of the victims of their corruption. “Paradise”, which seems like this beautiful nostalgic tune of a man’s memories of childhood, is in fact a sobering story of the devastation that industrial progress left behind it when the coal companies ravaged the lands in the name of greed.
Of course, beyond his political songs there was some of the greatest love songs I have ever heard. The classic duet “In Spite Of Ourselves” will forever be the anthem for every dysfunctional romance. Then there is the great love song, “Christmas In Prison”, which is a story of a prisoner writing to his lover on the outside, complete with humor and a wonderful chorus. The great thing about Prine was how every song seemed to just touch the listener in every way possible. From heartache, to frustration, and even a happy go lucky tune, like “Sour Grapes”, to get you through a tough day. My all time favorite Prine track, “Crazy as a Loon”, is just a lighthearted song about the pitfalls of trying but not making it in life, that ultimately leave us mad in the end, but that is just life. John lived to tell a good story and bring joy to people, and in death he remains a source of both forever.
As he wrote in his 2018 song, “When I Get 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?
So I guess that just sums up John Prine, he understood the beautiful irony of life and embraced the empathy needed to navigate it’s unpredictable waters, all the while accepting the rough waters as just part of the whole damn mystery. He will be missed but never forgotten.