I wanted to be Neil Young or Joe Strummer; I wanted to understand Bob Dylan. John Prine, well, I wanted to be his friend. I live in my head a lot, and Prine has been a good one to keep me company there. When I first heard his music around 1979 when I was at summer camp, I liked him best when he was funny, and even now I have been washing my hands to “Dear Abby” over the last few weeks, as the verses are each about twenty seconds when I sing them to myself. In recent days, I have washed my hands as “Noisemaker,” “Bewildered,” and “Just Married.”
People are going to write all sorts of things about him and much of it will be beautiful. I hesitated to write because others will say things so much better than I can. But I owe him what I have to give: a few words, and here they are: even though I never met him, I am feeling his passing almost like a loss in the family.
Over time I found that not simply his sense of humor but all of his songwriting is grounded in what is true about us, generously reflected back at us by way of a Martin D-28 scratched into the spruce grain between the sound-hole and the neck, paired with a weathered voice that could carry a bit of the weight of the world for us. I’ve heard it said that when you first hear a truly great country song, you are sure you’ve heard it before. Hearing Prine you feel like you’ve known him all along, that he’s known you all along, or your grandparents, or your long-addicted friend.
What I admire most about him as a skilled songwriter is his almost clairvoyant empathy, a tuneful negative capability. For example, in his early twenties he wrote from the perspective of lonely couple who lost a son (Davy) in the Korean War, and he wrote from the perspective of “an old woman” who hears “flies in the kitchen.” I personally think his gifts in this area are not only unique among even the greatest songwriters, but they are also exceedingly difficult to find in the world. You know he’ll never tell a lie even when he makes up a story.
We used to have a weekend place in Highlands, NC, and even when we couldn’t get there for several weeks in a row, it brought me comfort knowing it was there, that the breeze was shuffling through the Hemlocks, that the rusty wind chime was lazily sounding as it passed by. I liked knowing such a place was in the world. In much the same way, I liked knowing John Prine was in the world too, that he was on a stage somewhere, laughing with his audience about “happy enchiladas” or toy trains, that he was greeting a stranger with kindness and smiling for the camera, that he was doing a silly dance around his guitar on his way off the stage.
His death at this moment as a result of Covid19 seems particularly painful. Beyond singing “Dear Abby” as I wash my hands, I have leaned into him over these last weeks. Only a couple of weeks ago I streamed his old Austin City Limits Concert. I recently played “Please Don’t Bury Me” for my daughter as we drove to Big Ridge State Park in East Tennessee to squeeze in one more hike before they closed it. It is exceedingly cruel he had to die alone just as it is for so many victims of this miserable virus. For someone who made others feel less alone to then die alone is a vicious irony.*
I am sorry for his family, his wife, and his sons. They are surely suffering this morning, and they must be exhausted, as he was in the ICU for days. I hope they can find rest, and I hope they will draw comfort knowing he made the world better while he was in it. I am grateful for his life, and I hate that he is gone.
So its hurry! hurry! Step right up
It’s a matter of life or death
The sun is going down
And the moon is just holding its breath
–From “My Mexican Home”
PS Tonight is the Pink Moon. The largest of the super moons this year, I am told. Usually, this would be a moment to think of Nick Drake’s stunningly beautiful song and album Pink Moon, but this year this full moon is holding its breath for John Prine.
*after I posted this, I was thankful to find out from a tweet Fiona Prine wrote that she was able to be with John for the last couple of hours.