Sunday, January 10, 2021

In Memoriam: John Prine

John Prine (October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020)

In a year like we've had, one filled with such division, anger, isolation, and death, it's a tough assignment to go back and look at the overly-long list of musicians we lost since last January. We do it every year, in the magazines and the lists--celebrate the best and the worst in our 'end of the year' accounting, and usually, noting those we lost becomes less painful as it is part of the ritual of seeing out the old and making for the new. Reading the list seems a little sadder, and a little longer after these 12 long months. But, then most things have taken on a different sort of weight lately, and gravity has a different--heavier, perhaps--effect than it normally does. Or should. 

While he was never the household name that he should have been, troubadour and poet of the everyday American life, John Prine passed this year from complications from Covid19. Seems unfair that he could have survived a life of his own, self-chose misadventures only to be brought low by this damned virus. Prine's work was expansive and ranged in styles over the years, while always staying within the country, folk, Americana genre. But to label him solely as a country artist is to miss the point of his songs. His guitar was simple while also distinctive. His voice was distinctive, too. But, it wasn't vocal talent that made him memorable, but the words that he sang. 

Prine's lyrics were narrative, telling stories and trafficking in images of the everyday, of the course of our lives, our loves, our happiness and sadness. his images are what we see, rendered poetic. He sings through characters who go about their daily lives, the weight of their actions growing with the parings of guitars and pedal strings, an emotional resonance of love, loss, and just living though a human day. You can read Prine and listen to him, and both endeavors are filled with emotion and meaning. In interviews, Prine bristled at being labeled a poet, and once said, “If I wanted to be a poet, I’d write poetry. I know what poetry is. I’m not writing poetry, I’m writing song lyrics. Whatever the subject is, I’m trying to write as well about that subject as I possibly can but still within the confines of a song. I’m not trying to put my words down as a poem set to music. To me, that’s a different thing.” It is the universality of his writing--the commonplace imbued with meaning and familiarity--that gives Prine's music the weight.

Another musician who is celebrated equally as a poet, Bob Dylan, is a fan of Prine's commonplace poetic beauty. Both have received literary awards, in addition to musical ones. He compared Prine to Proust, for his ability to craft story from the prosaic ordinariness of life, and said, in his own, unique way: "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs."

Prine's catalog is large, and he worked hard, all the way up until he died. You can start anywhere, skip around, you'll hear some wonderful stories, meet some great characters. If you're in need of direction, two highlights:  the debut, self-titled album from 1971, and the songs "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "Sam Stone", both about the Viet Nam war. And a personal favorite, 1991's The Lost Years, which features back up from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "Angel From Montgomery", "Souvenirs", "Everything's Cool"...the list does indeed go on.

It's been a lousy year. Listening to music is a lifeline that will pull you from a sea of trouble. 

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