John Prine transcended music

Matt Stahl

 

I don’t remember the first time I heard a John Prine song. Based on how my musical tastes have evolved, it was probably sometime between eighth grade and the end of high school.

It wasn’t until freshman year at WKU that he became a fixture of my music listening. I’ve listened to his albums “Bruised Orange,” “The Missing Years” and his self-titled album more times than I can count. I’ll listen to each of them even more over the next several weeks.

Prine died yesterday, and the world is a worse place for it.

His way with songwriting was unequaled. There are artists who can make you cry with a story. There are artists who can make you laugh with a turn of phrase. Prine was both, oftentimes in the same song, a level of artistry that goes unrivaled.

If I’m being honest, he doesn’t deserve to have his legacy eulogized by a 22-year-old college newspaper writer.

He could write an absolute heartbreaker, like “Sam Stone,” a song that was released in 1971 but remains as relevant as ever in the face of today’s opioid epidemic. 

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.”

He could write hilarious songs about serious subjects. “When I Get to Heaven,” off his final album, discusses his death, but does it in a way that suggests he’s laughing at the concept.

“And Then I’m gonna get a cocktail / Vodka and ginger ale / Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.”

He was a fighter too. After years of smoking, he ended up with cancer in his throat. The treatment plan would affect his vocal chords, but he went through with it anyway. Then, against all odds, he kept making music.

The music was phenomenal too. His first post-cancer album, “Fair and Square,” is a triumph of songwriting. His final full album, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” was a fitting finale, the songs were as good as they always were.

He could hold up a mirror to society, though he was never known as a protest songwriter. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” shows his displeasure with the Vietnam War without coming across as preaching.

“But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore / They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war / Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for / And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore.”

He never wasted words. His best known song, “Angel from Montgomery,” is beautiful because of the story that it tells, but is made better by the fact that there’s no fat left to trim. Every word is necessary and it ends up a brilliant portrayal of the human condition, better than anything the best newspaper or magazine writers could ever dream of making.

Beyond songwriting and performing, he was beloved as a human. Try to find someone with a bad thing to say about him. Just try. You won’t be able to.

“To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”

In the end, it was the COVID-19 virus that got him. This is a dark hour for America and the world, and it’s tempting to break quarantine just a little bit to see friends or look for another piece of normalcy.

But we can’t. We owe it to ourselves and everyone else to stay home. We owe it to Prine and Joe Diffie and everyone else who has already died from this to stay home and try to stop the spread.

The world is already darker, less beautiful than it was when we woke up yesterday. Let’s try to keep it from sliding further.

“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.” 

Projects Editor Matt Stahl can be reached at [email protected] Follow Matt on Twitter @Mattstahl97.