My appreciation for John Prine bloomed late but furiously. After my tough winter in 2011, I stayed with my parents at their house in Arkansas for a while to regroup. When it was time to head back North, my dad and I took the long way home, following Highway 61 like a couple of less cool Dylans. The route meandered, our thoughts meandered, and of course, of course, our music meandered.
Dad popped in a cassette tape—dads are the purest, most heartful hipsters—and we listened to the scratchy, scruffy stories of a man who could have been from Appalachia, from Nebraska, from Salinas, from home; it didn’t matter. I think the track Dad was most excite for me to hear was the lighthearted Dear Abby and the heavy Sam Stone, both of which I’ve carried with me ever since. That’s how John Prine’s song work—like crumpled dollars you find in your pocket when you think you’ve spent your last dime.
When I got home, I picked up a couple of his albums and kept on listening. He’s not all that easy to pigeonhole. I’m tempted to say he’s a sunnier Dylan, but in his quiet moments, John Prine aches just as bad or worse. But maybe he’s more interesting, more dynamic, more like the rest of us. Our own lives are rarely the melodramatic high opera of Bob Dylan’s tunes unless we’re really trying, really posturing. I mean, “go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed?” Who says that besides an English major who knows that every trauma will later be aesthetically mined? But most of us are clumsy, sometimes articulate, sometimes goofy, sometimes confused, lonely, happy. You get a more human shape from Prine; those things are all there in full, taking their turn at the microphone.
I saw John Prine last night, and though I have seen a handful of legendary acts this year, I don’t know if any audience has been more deeply appreciative. It felt like everyone was his old friend, hearing the same stories he likes to tell over and over but they let him finish because the stories are still good, even after all this time. Once again, I was the kid in the crowd, even though there is now grey in my hair and wrinkles where I’ve been laughing. I’ve gotten used to hanging out with that crowd—they always sort of take me in and ask me about how I found the music we’re about to hear. I like it. I think I’ve always liked sitting at the table with the grown ups, so to speak. Always.
His shoulders are stiff, and his hair’s a scruffy frizz, and his voice took a beating from throat cancer and his belly is big from eating and drinking what he likes because he likes to do things he likes, I imagine. But his songs are still true, his banter is still funny and sincere. And he plowed through a set and a half, stopping only a couple of times for water and only once to pound down a tiny bottle of airplane whiskey, which got him one of many standing ovations that night.
A couple of kids from Canada opened for him—a lanky young fellow with a guitar and a golden haired fiddle playing young woman, and they killed it. John invited them back onstage several times, and her voice with his was like sea salt and caramel and perfect.
He didn’t sing Dear Abby, and he didn’t sing Blue Umbrella (my fave), but he did Hello In There, and as he sang word he wrote as a young man about old people as an older person himself, I got a sense that he knew all along what the end might be like someday. I think I understand him in that way—bursts of great joy with one eye on the horizon because you can sort of see the last stop on the line.
I hope that stop is still a good distance ahead of him, and I hope there is at least one more burst of joy we can share together in person between here and there.
Thank, John. You were great.