Notes on John Prine’s “Paradise”

At the Bonnie Raitt concert WC attended recently, Raitt lamented the loss of John Prine, her friend, co-performer and colleague. “Hold John close to your heart,” she urged us, before performing “Angel from Montgomery,” the Prine song she has sung most often. It’s on Prine’s astonishing first album, along with other unforgettable songs like “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Flag Decal” and “Paradise.”

In effort to do what Raitt asked, and because WC remains a huge fan of the late John Prine, WC offers this closer look at “Paradise,” Prine’s ode to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

It was written by Prine for his father.

I wrote it for my father mainly so he would know I was a songwriter. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was in the Army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling me how the coal company had bought the place out.

. . . . .

It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had two general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short. He looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s dad, all day fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers came in and wiped it all off the map.

When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox…

– John Prine, 1983 Interview with Lydia Hutchinson, for a piece on Prine at Performing

At several points in the song, Prine calls out Peabody Coal Mining Company, especially in the chorus, “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” That seriously annoyed Peabody. The company reportedly wrote Prine, demanding he stop performing the song. He ignored it. Peabody published a pamphlet, attempting to rebut the claims of the song. The pamphlet seems to be lost to history, but song’s lyrics remain widely known.

And the song still gets under the skin of Peabody. When environmental activists Thomas Asprey and Leslie Glustrom, of Boulder, Colorado, sued Peabody for violating their civil rights by having them arrested outside a 2013 shareholders’ meeting in Gillette, Wyoming, in their complaint Asprey and Glustrom included the chorus of “Paradise.” Peabody moved to strike the chorus from the complaint, whining that it was irrelevant. U.S. Magistrate Kelly Rankin refused, holding:

Although the song lyrics add little if any relevant information to the complaint, they are not so disconnected, inflammatory or prejudicial as to merit removal. Furthermore, as the lyrics have existed since 1971, it is difficult to see how the inclusion of the lyrics in plaintiff’s complaint prejudices defendant Peabody to a greater extent.

Order Denying Motion to Strike, May 22, 2015

Did Prine get it wrong? Here’s an annotated set of lyrics.

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

Yes, Prine’s parents, William Mason Prine, a tool-and-die maker, and Verna Valentine (Hamm, were both born in Muhlenberg County. And, as a child, Prine and his family would make summer visits there.
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Paradise, Kentucky no longer exists, but it was indeed on the banks of the Green River.

Near the town of Paradise, Kentucky, the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Paradise Steam Plants – initially two units, both in the 740 megawatt range. TVA made long-term coal supply contracts with mining companies for thousands of acres of land in the immediate vicinity of Paradise. 50,000 acres, much of it in Muhlenberg County, was strip-mined for coal.

The coal plants were just upwind of Paradise. The coal ash and air quality were so bad people abandoned the town.
Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.

The Green River runs on the east side of the former site of Paradise.

There was a prison at a quarry on Airdrie Hill. It was last used as a prison for Civil War prisoners.

There’s a back story to the snakes business, too. Studs Terkel got Prine to tell it.
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
Peabody’s gigantic shovel, “Big Hog,” was assembled on site in 1965, used until the coal seam ran out, and then buried in situ.

Peabody filed bankruptcy in 2016, escaping most of its environmental remediation obligations and stiffing the miners to whom it owed pensions.
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 waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Rochester Dam is located on the Green River, just upstream from Rochester, Kentucky.
Dignitaries walk away from the dedication of Peabody Coal’s giant shovel in Western Kentucky, 1965. Louisville Courier-Journal Photo

The song became something of an anthem in the environmentalism fight to stop the carnage to the landscape under Kentucky’s lax mining laws. But that wasn’t why Prine wrote the song. It’s an homage to things that are lost. And, within the limits of art, a pretty accurate story. Whatever Peabody may have claimed.

8 thoughts on “Notes on John Prine’s “Paradise”

  1. Things I’ve heard…

    From a great documentary I saw maybe 8 months back. I cannot recall the title, but if I do, I’ll forward it.

    * Regarding Bill Prine going into a dark room to listen “so he could pretend it was on the jukebox.” Prine mentions that he didn’t know for sure, but he thought his dad didn’t want to be seen weeping.

    * Bill first heard the song on the reel-to-reel, and said, “Dave’s got to play that part” (meaning the fiddle, John’s older brother, Dave, was an accomplished musician in his own right.) The documentary describes how Dave had to join the musician’s union and go into the studio with all these session men just for the one song. Dave had only played living room and front porch music before, but held his own with them.

    * Doc Watson (or some other bluegrass legend, again my memory), commented when he first heard Paradise, that he figured it was an old standard which had somehow escaped his notice, not realizing it was a contemporary song written by Prine.

    * Bill Prine never got to hear John’s debut album. He passed between the hearing it on the reel-to-reel and the album’s official release.

    Again, if I can track down the title of the documentary, I’ll post it here.

    Thanks again for the posts you write.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Also a huge John Prine fan. In college I was shocked that Paradise wasn’t a documentary but a result of artistic license. I was then later shocked that some of the “truth” that I had read was largely the result of Peabody commercial propaganda. This is pre-internet when information had to be found in libraries on dead trees. There were a few years in the 80’s where I did a lot of growing up on how the world was less black and white than I thought it was. Setting aside the obvious BS on both sides:

    The Pittsburg and Midway Coal Company as well as Peabody mined in Muhlenburg County in the 50’s and 60’s. Tennessee Valley Authority, not Peabody poisoned the town (albeit with fly ash from coal that was mined in part by Peabody). The mines were virtually next door to the power plants, power plants next door to the town. I think they used coal ash as fill too. Coal for the plant was hauled by truck. There were coal trains and barges but they didn’t haul the town away. Most people moved out on their own because it wasn’t a nice place to live. TVA bought out and tore down what was left of the town in the late 1960’s. To Prine’s credit, he was a talented enough artist to know that “the Tennessee Valley Authority’s trucks and bulldozers done hauled what was left of it away” was a strained lyric at best.

    Peabody and TVA did far more direct damage to other communities by condemning public roads near coal mines so they could be used by coal trucks. This effectively killed the communities served by those roads. They would literally buy towns or isolated plots of land in and around planned mining areas often using less than scrupulous methods.

    This was coal country going back to before the Civil War. There is still mining in Muhlenburg Co. I’ve visited. Muhlenburg County is a beautiful western Kentucky rural setting. Paradise? maybe not but if you like towns that look like Mainstreet USA and rolling hill farm country, limestone gorges and cypress swamps it’s very nice.

    The Paradise electric plant was closed then the big plant was converted to gas at some point relatively recently. They don’t burn coal there any longer. The thing has cooling towers that look like a nuclear plant. It’s a huge facility. Kind of pretty in a Bond-lair sort of way.

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  3. Many (many) moons ago WC and I were talking about musicians and he mentioned, “a great songwriter John Prine”. WC had a slight twitch when I told him I never heard of him. I’ve made up for it since then with stacks of Mr. Prine’s vinyl/CD’s/sheet music.

    In a weird Alaska-related twist I found this tidbit from a history of the Peabody Coal Company, “In 1968, Peabody’s assets were acquired by Kennecott Copper Corporation.”

    >>> WC, I went down the rabbit hole and found a few pages with good interviews and other info.

    “I tried to write something about Trump – one was called Dear Mr President, but I found myself going into a rant in the first verse. I think the real reason I didn’t write a song about him was that I secretly kept hoping he’d be gone before I could get into the studio.”

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  4. Just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future. May his vision of us repairing our cruelty to our planet come true…


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