Riff Raff: Dear John

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 849 views 

It wasn’t supposed to get to John. With little guilt, a subdued conscience and the shallow anger of the bitter, I’d submit the names of others this goddamned coronavirus should have taken instead of John Prine.

Instead of discussing here his amazing discography and impact among at least two generations of singer-songwriters, let’s consider that someone noted Prine was “among the English language’s premier phrase-turners with music relevant to any age.” That’s close to the nail on the head. His talent was in crafting short phrases and simple words with staggering reach. His songs can unsettle a worldview with clever rhymes, a few chords and a unique delivery that entranced with authenticity.

But I was late to the Prine world. My knowledge of Prine was wholly superficial prior to being a fan of this Jason Isbell fella from Alabama. Isbell mentioned Prine as one of his influences. That was around 10 years ago, and I’ve since wondered how much better – richer, if not more mature – my life would have been with an earlier discovery of Prine.

It’s no secret love and life can be a bit complicated, but a few lines from Prine unlocks down-deep pains and joys and regrets and truths and lies and smiles of paths taken and not.

Growing up Baptist and Pentecostal, I know a thing about music hitting you down where you didn’t know there was a deep. My preferred hymn book now includes Prine and Cash who paint clear realities of life. When the pulpits touted support for the Vietnam War, or almost any war for that matter, Cash sang about Ira Hayes and Prine about Sam Stone.

“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”

That partial lyric was from Prine’s Sam Stone, a song about a Vietnam vet who physically came home but never made it mentally. Another Prine gem suggested that “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore/They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” Prine didn’t help his career by pushing back against war hawks, but that’s the difference between an entertainer and an artist.

He was an environmentalist before that was cool.

“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.”

His note of environmental harm was a word picture of lost geography with a catchy tune. Prine would never directly say the Emperor was naked. He seemed to prefer telling folks there might be clothes scattered on the whorehouse floor.

The many tributes since his death often note he was our Mark Twain. Indeed, they both had an unequaled capacity to remind ourselves of the inequalities and injustices we will abide in the hollow calls of country, religion, and our own demons. Prine reminded us that life will often wake us up before we’re ready; that our pace of existence means decisions often are required before information is acquired. And that decision can be tragedy or triumph – or the reverse in the long term. Either way, it’s the next breath you take.

Let’s hope the Carliles, Cooks, Crowells, Isbells, Sniders, Simpsons, McMurtrys, Musgraves, and Raitts of the music world pick up his legacy and speak truth to power and empower those who seek the truth.