Remembering the power and glory of John Prine

Associated Press
Maribeth Schmitt placed a wreath below a mural of singer John Prine on the side of Apollo's Pizza in Lexington, Ky. after Prine died April 7 at the age of 73 from complications from the coronavirus.

By SCOTT SAALMAN
Guest Columnist

Suddenly, the world seems different.

I’m not referring to the pandemic, though COVID-19, that dastardly scourge, does have a direct role in my present angst, nay sorrow, here during The Great Global Pause.

I must take pause from the Pause to ponder.

John Prine died.

Those three words stare me down from my lit laptop screen like a succinct epitaph on a freshly-lasered tombstone standing in the mental boneyard where a myriad of major influencers lie buried.

Sometimes we must write what we don’t want to write. Begrudgingly, much has been written about Prine since dying April 7 while on a ventilator in Nashville. Great, deserved things, recalled by journalists, peers, famous folk, and his super fans — all who adored the man and his music.

I became a John Prine fan circa 1979. My buddy Kevin had an older sister who had an LP called “Prime Prine.” It was an early-early-career 12-song “best of” compilation pulled from Prine’s first four albums dating from ’71-’75.

Kevin wanted me to hear “Dear Abby,” the perfect introduction for a newbie to Prine’s wit and charm. I still remember standing there watching the great record spin for the first time and laughing aloud upon hearing the punchline at the song’s end: “Signed, just married.” Then, I listened to “Sam Stone.” “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.” Its solemnity buckled my knees, and I found myself sitting on the carpet in silence. Comedy. Tragedy.  The two songs were as different from each other as night and day, extreme endpoints on the comedy/tragedy spectrum. Prine mastered the balance of human pleasure and pain throughout his long songwriting career, penning songs that were essentially postcards from humanity.

A passage from “Often Is A Word I Seldom Use” delivers a perfect one-two-comic-tragic punch: “You must think my life’s a circus / Watching me laughing / And slapping my thighs / How’d ya like to die / In the house of mirrors / With nobody around to close your eyes.” I still cannot shake the imagery of those words. It’s my favorite Prine lyric.

I saw four Prine concerts. I’m a lightweight compared to those whose accumulation of Prine shows are tallied by the dozens. Earlier this year, at the end of a symphonic pops show celebrating Linda Ronstadt (the last mass gathering I attended before COVID-19 isolated us), a stranger noticed my Prine sweatshirt and drew to me like a moth to lantern. “I’ve seen him more than 50 times,” he said. We shook hands, as if we were long-lost cousins at a family reunion (my final handshake before isolation), a testament to the power and glory of John Prine.

My last Prine concert was June 2018. It marked the first time Brynne saw him live. She loved it, from the opening number, “Paradise,” to the show’s closer 24 songs later, again “Paradise.”

“…where the air smelled like snakes / and we’d shoot with our pistols / but empty pop bottles were all we would kill…”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Brynne smile while watching me smile while I watched Prine smile on stage. A year later, at our wedding, a Prine song played as she beamed and walked down the aisle with her father: “I've been holding on for you / Dreams I've had have all come true / I've seen your picture and I knew you right away / I have met my love today.”

Last Father’s Day, Brynne and I visited the Ryman to see Ry Cooder and Rosanne Cash sing Johnny Cash songs. As the house lights dimmed, a familiar figure cladded in Johnny Cash black passed mere inches from us en route to the balcony’s front pew. It was Prine with wife Fiona. We awkwardly hung back after the show, hoping to say hello, but, ultimately, we decided not to infringe upon the couple’s personal time. Today, I both regret and don’t regret this.

Brynne and I had fifth-row tickets to a Prine show scheduled for this May. Saddened that we cannot use them now, we are still grateful for our past shared live Prine experience.

Sunday, March 29, I was taking a walk when my buddy Marc Steczyk texted a Rolling Stone headline: John Prine Hospitalized with COVID-19 Symptoms: ‘His Situation Is Critical.’ It was a gut kick. I sat on the street curb and absorbed the bad news. For several days, I played nothing but Prine, each song a separate prayer to spare his suffering, if not his life. Like hundreds of other fans, I’m sure.

Tuesday, April 7, another Steczyk text, another Rolling Stone headline: John Prine, One of America’s Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73. The rotation of Prine songs increased on my smart phone.

Several important musicians have died in the past few years, but Prine’s passing, for me, is the one that is most profound. He shaped my writing. I try to keep it human, hone in on the humor or heartache.

For most of us Prine fans, he was like a long-time buddy that we never actually met. We didn’t know him, but we thought we knew him thanks to his studio recordings and amiable, down-home, Midwestern stage presence. We weren’t related, but we related.

We have our Prine memories; we have our Prine music.

John Prine died, but he is not going away.

Contact Scott Saalman at scottsaalman@gmail.com




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