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RIP John Prine: America’s Humanity In Song and Story

He inspired generations of artists and delighted fans with compassion and open embrace of nostalgia.

John Prine hanging out at Georgia State College, before a live interview on WRAS-FM in 1975. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

This isn’t exactly an obituary. It’s closer to a eulogy. At best, it’s a labor of love and gratitude for a man who’s given me more than I can repay. In truth, it’s an act of mourning.

I never wanted to write a valedictory for John Prine because what’s the use in saying farewell to a man who would have said it better himself? For those who loved him, he was more than a national treasure or a Late Show mainstay. He was a beacon of humanity in uncertain and callous times. He was karaoke and lullabies. He was family.

Let’s dispense with the fine points. John Prine was one of America’s greatest storytelling songwriters. Last night, he succumbed to complications relating to COVID-19 at 73 years old. A two-time cancer survivor, his lungs gave out after a week in the ICU under intubation at Vanderbilt hospital in Nashville. A legend in his time, Prine was a 2020 recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a 2015 inductee to the Grammy Hall of Fame. He’d received multiple recognitions for Best Contemporary Folk Album among honors too numerous to tally.

There was an immediate and heartfelt outpouring of tributes. NPR recalled “one of the most revered songwriters of the past 50 years,” while Rolling Stone catalogued his 25 greatest hits in “his humble, hilarious way.” Across the pond, the BBC reported “Bruce Springsteen leads tribute to the late singer.”

Each piece tells part of the story. They will shuffle you from his humble beginnings in Chicago’s folk scene, catching the eye of a young Kris Kristofferson at the Fifth Peg, to headier days in Greenwich Village where he signed with Atlantic Records. Prine’s friendship with Bonnie Raitt, who immortalized his “Angel from Montgomery,” is unanimously celebrated. It’s not every 25-year old singer-songwriter who can capture the lovelorn melancholy of a middle-aged woman.

The best of these testimonials remind you that Bob Dylan ranked John Prine as one of his favorite songwriters. The Blind Boy Grunt declared, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustianism existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.” A musician’s musician, Prine was routinely covered to great acclaim and commercial success by the likes Johnny Cash and George Strait. He was even adored by the hard-boiled critics at Pitchfork who credit Prine with composing, “both the saddest song in the world, ‘Sam Stone,’ and the saddest song in the universe, ‘Hello in There.’” That’s a remarkable statement. But it somehow befits two of the most gut-wrenching reflections on war and loss yet put to melody.

Readers of this publication will be familiar with the well-known stuff. Prine famously mourned the strip-mining of Kentucky coal country in “Paradise” and skewered superficial jingoism with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” More charitably, he wrote “Unwed Fathers” for unwed mothers.

Of course, the Greatest Hits don’t quite cover it. When Prine fell ill, I was selfishly dumbstruck with grief that we might lose this “uncommon everyman.” Like many, I’d leaned on him and his music in tough times. His relationship with his fans was always personal given an unflinching regard for our human condition. Of course, I’m a case in point having borrowed more from John Prine than I can square.

Consider that each night before bed, my son—our oldest—sings along with me as I rock him to sleep, crooning, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round.” Just last night, he yawned contentedly while counting his toes in line with the lyrics. I cribbed the kicker of my mother’s eulogy from Prine, knowing “She was in Heaven Before She Died” [sic] having held her only grandson. Small wonder “graveyards and old pawnshops” have been known to bring me tears. To close the stanza, “I can’t forgive the way they’ve robbed me of my childhood souvenirs.” This stuff stays with you.

And so will John Prine. Despite the aw-shucks lyricism and humble chord progressions—or perhaps because of these—his music will live on. The stories he told will yet convey a startling timelessness, the sort of which slips us back to a gauzy yesteryear we didn’t know we pined for. Over the past 50 years, he’s inspired generations of artists and delighted legions of fans with his trademark compassion and knack for nostalgia. And while I’m thoroughly gutted by his loss, I’m grateful my son won’t be the last kid to learn a John Prine chorus in his jammies.

Reid Smith writes from Haverford, Pennsylvania.

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