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John Prine, R.I.P.

About the author

Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is assistant professor of political science at Ashland University and a contributing editor at The Lamp. This essay appeared in the Assumption 2022 issue of The Lamp.

John Prine died. Perhaps he found some humor in this event, as he suggested he would on “Please Don’t Bury Me” and “When I Get to Heaven.” In the former, he declares his intention to donate his eyes to the blind and his ears to the deaf “if they don’t mind the size.” The latter begins: “When I get to heaven / I’m gonna shake God’s hand / And thank him for more blessings / Than one man can stand.” If his vision of the afterlife is accurate, Prine is chuckling at the big to-do we make about death’s sting and smoking a cigarette “that’s nine miles long.”

In the last decade or so, many people discovered what I have always taken for granted: that Prine is the greatest songwriter of all time. He first took the stage in 1969, at the Fifth Peg in Chicago, when an amateur musician lost to history got sick of the beery heckling from a mailman in the audience. “You get up here if you think you can do better.” Prine stunned the crowd with “Sam Stone,” the saddest song ever written on a mail route.

Prine’s mix of clownishness, social criticism, and wit never did fit comfortably into the country music genre. He said the first hay bale he ever saw was the one on the cover of his first album. Yet the country legends were all fans: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, Kris Kristofferson (who got Prine his first record deal), and Townes Van Zandt.

Even among the generation that invented modern popular music, Prine stood out for his range and his humanity. He wrote songs about old people. He wrote songs about ordinary married couples, like “The Other Side of Town,” which makes you cry one line and laugh the next. He wrote songs about lonely Indian child actors who ride elephants on tour in the Midwest. He wrote songs about a topless lady “with something up her sleeve,” who wisely counsels you to blow up your TV, move to the country, “Eat a lot of peaches / Try and find Jesus / On your own.” After surviving throat cancer in 1998, Prine did find the God with Whom he had been so casual his whole life.

Prine is equal parts goofy and poignant, irreverent and wistful. The famous line in “Sam Stone”—“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose”—isn’t even the best Prine line about our Lord. In “Jesus the Missing Years,” his version of the Grand Inquisitor is a twenty-something musician Jesus in Rome (“Italy, that is”) who can’t get a divorce in the Catholic Church (“not back then, anyhow”). Prine continues wryly, “Jesus was a good guy / He didn’t need this shit.” If any lines of Boomer poetry cut to the quick of that generation as deftly, I do not know them.

The first time I remember listening to his music, I must have been pretty young, because Mom told Dad that he couldn’t play “In Spite of Ourselves” when my sister and I were in the car. Dad kept up the fight long after the wonderful Iris DeMent sings “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays,” but Mom slammed the dial after another line that cannot be reproduced in a family magazine. Years later, this charming song was my top choice for the first dance with my wife, but she saved the wedding by forcing me to compromise. We decided on “The Glory of True Love.” Prine fans will know what I mean when I say I hope she will watch Con Air with me soon.

No bonfire is complete, if there be guitars to play, without a rendition of “Paradise.” Prine must have been a goliard from a young age, because he wrote this song as a teenage draftee in order to show his Kentuckian father that he could write “real” songs. It’s his best sing-along tune, one I learned before I knew what the lyrics meant, and the one I’m always glad when others know. It’s also the first song he wrote about his death: “When I die let my ashes float down the Green River / Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam / I’ll be halfway to heaven with Paradise waiting / Just five miles away from wherever I am.” 

In “Paradise” and other songs, Prine protested many things written down “as the progress of man”: not only mountaintop removal mining, but also war, loneliness, and neglect. But he didn’t make protest music, not essentially. We continue to listen because his songs are inimitable, uncanny affirmations of the absurd and the ordinary.