Only Bob Dylan and Guy Clark surpass Prine in my pantheon of singer-songwriters. And his death came in the midst of a career revival. In 2018, at age 72, Prine released the most commercially successful album of his nearly 50-year recording career, The Tree of Forgiveness. It was also his most critically acclaimed record since the 1971 eponymous first album, one of the greatest debuts in the history of American popular music.
Prine’s career began in the late 1960s, singing his own songs at open-mic nights in Chicago folk clubs, after completing his rounds as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service.
Discovered at about the same time by musicians Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson and the film critic Roger Ebert, Prine’s local popularity accelerated after Ebert wrote a glowing 1970 Chicago Sun-Times review of one such performance. Ebert compared Prine to Dylan and Hank Williams, calling him “an extraordinary new composer and performer.”
Prine said that he often composed his early songs in his head while carrying the mail, and his experience as a postman resulted in one of his most famous songs, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” Inspired by a Readers Digest distribution of flag decals in one of its issues, the song is perhaps the best example of Prine’s ability to write scorching, mordant political commentary. The narrator of the song, in a fit of patriotic fervor, put the decals all over his car windshield. Meeting his expected fate, he complained:
I’ll never understand why the man standing in the Pearly Gates said
“Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore
We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Jesus don’t like killing no matter what the reasons for”
Sometimes Prine’s social observations were somber, sober, and devastating. In “Sam Stone,” he wrote about a returning Vietnam war veteran who could never overcome his injuries both visible and invisible. The drugs he took to kill his demons killed him instead. Framed by the chilling chorus, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” Prine wrote:
Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
Prine could not be characterized solely by these and other politically motivated songs, however. For example, he wrote movingly about the inner thoughts of a lonely housewife in “Angel From Montgomery” (covered by the great Bonnie Raitt) that begins:
I am an old woman
Named after my mother
My old man is another
Child who’s grown old,
And after rehearsing the steady sad decline of her marriage, the narrator ends:
To believe in this livin’
Is just a hard way to go.
But Prine was just as capable of writing songs that were downright funny. Recorded as a duet with Iris Dement, “In Spite of Ourselves” is the first-person account of a raucous but affectionate relationship of two lovers. “He ain’t too sharp, but he gets things done,” she says. “She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs,” he retorts, “Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs.” But, “In spite of ourselves,” they sing together:
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize
There won’t be nothin’
But big old hearts dancin’ in our eyes.
Prine’s last known recorded song, “I Remember Everything” (for which he won the posthumous Grammy) is a cruelly ironic meditation on memory, longing, happiness, and regret. Reflecting on “every hotel room,” “swimming pools of butterflies,” “your ocean eyes of blue,” and “the way you turned and smiled on me/On the night that we first met,” Prine’s last words summarize what many of his fans feel:
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew.
As he entered the last years of his life, Prine contemplated what had gone before and what was yet to come. I know he wrote lovely, sad, funny, sardonic songs, but I cannot know what else he did to prepare for the death he could not have known was coming so soon.
I do know that John Prine’s songs say true things about life, love, and death. And, thus, they have made me a better person than I would have been without him.
In a boisterous song from the last album, Prine sang, “When I get to Heaven/I’m gonna get a cocktail/Vodka and ginger ale/I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long/I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl/Yeah this old man is goin’ to town.”
John Prine was born on 10 October 1946. He died too soon on 7 April 2020. If Heaven is a cocktail of vodka and ginger ale, I pray that his is stiff and cold.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.
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