John Prine, R.I.P.

Musician John Prine performs at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass., September 19, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The singer-songwriter, who passed away Tuesday at 73 from coronavirus-related complications, found greatness in a natural relatability.

My grandfather was a country singer, the kind who usually played in bars. He sometimes played guitar for people who’d made it bigger than he did, when their tours brought them to town. He was mostly unknown, but he was good — a real musician’s musician. And his favorite musician was John Prine.

I didn’t actually know that when he was alive. My grandfather died when I was 13, but for as long as I can remember he’d suffered badly from Parkinson’s, so in those 13 years I can hardly remember having a single real conversation with him. Even when he was alive, my best way of getting to know him was through cassette recordings of the music he had made in better days. I learned to love music through him, and to love him through music.

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Still, it took some time for me to discover John Prine. I remember the first time I heard him, a year or two after my grandfather had died: I was in the car with my dad (who had just picked me up from the train I took most of the way home from school every day) when “Paradise” started from his MP3 player. (My dad, a different kind of reactionary from me, still uses an MP3 player.) I sat in silence and in awe through the whole song. The sun was going down, I remember, and I found that fitting. I had never had the gift of off-the-cuff eloquence, so when it was over, all I could say was, “I like that song.” “Me too,” my dad replied. “He was your grandfather’s favorite singer.”

It’s been six years or so since that day, and “Paradise” remains a favorite of mine. Like any great song, it’s about a lot of things, and certainly contains its fair share of irony and political commentary. But it’s mostly about trying to hold on, somehow, to the things that we lose as time goes on.

On the surface level, it’s nostalgic, memorializing Prine’s longing for the boyhood trips he took to his parents’ native Muhlenberg County, Ky. When I hear it, I can’t help but think of visiting my grandparents in North Carolina when I was a kid. Of course, for me, those visits weren’t a return to ancestral lands; my grandfather, like me, came from the heart of Dixie (Massachusetts) and had moved to North Carolina just before I was born. The state’s milder climate was good for his health, and it gave me a picturesque setting for my Prine-ian recollections of boyhood. There are a few vivid memories: the cherry soda bottled right there in town; the way the winged seeds that fell from the trees covered the sidewalks; the loud train that rolled through from time to time. For the most part, though, those few days are — just like the Muhlenberg County of Prine’s youth — something lost before it was even really possessed. It is a happy result (one might even say the purpose) of Prine’s art that one humble listener might reclaim the same memories and feelings that he himself so treasured, simply by hearing his songs.

This relatability, I think, was Prine’s defining gift. He was a simple man — a mailman, actually, who first took to the stage after a performer he was heckling shot back with “You think you could do better?” He told simple stories — his best works are about the pains of aging and of loneliness, about the monumental struggle of simply getting by. He wrote simple songs — there’s rarely much more to the recordings than a voice and a guitar. His greatness wasn’t a matter of high genius, but of being a man whom many of us felt we could know and did know, despite never having met him.

Once upon a time, caught up in the fantastic dreams of childhood, I thought that I wanted to be a musician like my grandfather. I asked for a harmonica for Christmas, because it looked easy. As I was struggling in the last days of December to master the difficult little piece of metal, my grandfather came into the room and took it from me. He improvised an impressive little tune, just for a few seconds. It was the only time I ever actually witnessed him make music, and in that moment there was a glint in his eye, a life in his body, that I’d never seen before and never saw again. I saw a flash of the man I always wanted to know and never quite could.

Prine’s music got me closer to that man than anything else. He was a gifted country singer who could hang with the best of them. He was a wise old voice to guide the way through feelings of loss and longing. He was a crazy old man who often annoyed me (“Jesus, the Forgotten Years,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” etc.) in just the way my hippie grandfather would have if he’d ever had the chance, but who never lost my affection for it.

I cried the day my grandfather died, not just because I had lost someone who meant a great deal to me, but because I had lost the hope of really knowing him — a hope I always knew would probably never be realized, but one I still clung to as long as he lived. I cried yesterday, too, and for reasons much the same.

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