This one hurts. This one hurts a lot.
John Prine was a treasure. From his extraordinary self-titled debut album to Tree of Forgiveness, his last, he was a superb songwriter. He was a terrific live act, too: WC saw him live 10-12 times, from the very start of his career at Chicago’s Quiet Knight, to a recent tour through Boise a couple of years back. Twice in Fairbanks, in fact.
But more than that, Prine lyrics and music resonated with WC. His observations on he world were insightful, poignant and dead-on accurate. He could be political, starting with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven” on the first album through that killer shot at George Bush in “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” But mostly he was a sharp, sympathetic observer of the human condition with a gift for lyrics and melody that placed him among the very best of WC’s generation’s songwriters.
He had that ability to capture in a single line a whole world of meaning: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” from Sam Stone. “A question ain’t really a question, if you know the answer, too,” from “Far From Me.”
Life didn’t treat Prine all that well. Two bouts with cancer, one of which damaged his voice and altered his appearance. But he had a gift for taking that adversity and turning it into a song. He said, ” “Country songs and country songwriters are a strange lot. Seems like some of the best country songs over the years have come from some of the sadder situations in life – like divorce. Having recently acquired my second divorce, about a month later the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.” As just one example, his song, “All the Best,” on Jesus: The Missing Years, recounts his struggles to wish his ex-wife happiness in her new marriage, set to a bouncy melody.
Bonnie Raitt said, “The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.” Yep. Pretty much.
No two Prine fans agree on which is the best of his 18 albums. But WC’s favorite is 1978’s Bruised Orange, and especially the title track. The chorus runs,
You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
Throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”;
But it don’t do no good to get angry,
So help me I know
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
Chain of sorrow.
R.I.P. John Prine, 1946-2020. Give WC’s best to Steve Goodman.
- This includes trying not to be even more furious with the Trump Administration, which has utterly mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic. That mismanagement helped give Prine the disease that killed him. ↩