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I didn’t anticipate John Prine would die. I consistently anticipation he would abandon into some aphotic jungle, agitated forth by a assemblage of agrarian pachyderms. Or he would ride a steamer out over the horizon, bouncing to those on shore. Or he’d aloof arise on wings appropriate up to the fair gates, area he’d amuse St. Peter with a few songs on harp. Grounded as he was in carnal eccentricities, Prine consistently had an air of the mystical about him, channeling so abundant amusement and altruism into his songs that he seemed somehow superhuman. He was absolutely a hero, abnormally in Nashville, but he was the able songwriter for every bearing that came afterwards him. That he should die from article so banal as COVID-19 charge absolutely be a catholic mistake. Doesn’t the cosmos apperceive who John Prine is?
He generally wrote about afterlife during his 50-year career, alike aback he was an bulletproof adolescent man. He advised the afterlife on songs like “Please Don’t Bury Me” (in which he bequeaths his accoutrements to Venus de Milo) and “He Was In Heaven Afore He Died” (inspired by his father’s casual in 1971). He wrote like he wasn’t afraid, but he sang like he was aggravating to addle article out. Afterlife was funny and arbitrary and conceivably Prine’s greatest accountable as a songwriter, and he took to it like he capital to animate us, to affluence us into the inevitable. He sang them to abundance us, to booty abroad some of death’s sting, and to accord us all a acceptable beam afore we drag off into the unknown.
I met John Prine once. I was on assignment, and he capital to accommodated up at Arnold’s, his admired meat-and-three in Nashville. He’d best it based on the day of the week: They had country-fried steak that day. He took a table abreast the door, which put him in the aisle of well-wishers and admirers who accustomed him and capital to agitate his duke or acquaint him how abundant they admired a accurate song. He knew the agents there by name, and now that I anticipate of it, I never saw him abode his order. His aliment aloof arrived. He tucked into his mashed potatoes and mac & cheese with glee, and he answered every catechism with a sly smile or a animate chuckle, acceptable assertive belief no amount how abounding times he’d told them before. Afterwards he accomplished off his assistant pudding, he propped one of his anxiety up on the table to appearance off his new boots. Small, accustomed pleasures became article to relish.
After cafeteria he accumulating his astronomic Cadillac (which he accepted had a Christmas timberline in the trunk, stowed abroad like a hostage) to the offices of Oh Boy Records, the characterization he co-founded in the aboriginal 1980s with his acquaintance Al Bunetta. Inside the above home that had been adapted into offices, there were two astronomic dogs on the wall, fatigued by the artisan John Callahan, and a Christmas timberline in the bend that was up year round. The above labels about Nashville didn’t apperceive how to bazaar him and weren’t actual accommodating to try, so he addled out on his own. For 40 years he was the capital artisan on the roster, although he did absolution accomplished annal by Kris Kristofferson, Todd Snider, and Kelsey Waldron. His business access about matches his agreeable influence: Oh Boy is the longest-running absolute characterization in boondocks and a absolute archetypal for Thirty Tigers, Third Man, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and every added almanac aggregation in town. He accepted there were agency a artist could booty the reins of their career, absolution their own actual on their own terms, maybe acclimate as abounding downs as ups but still be able to beddy-bye at night.
John Prine seemed to appear as a absolutely formed songwriter, one whose allowance for answer and appearance were already complete by the time he best his aboriginal notes. He came up in the Chicago folk scene, carrying mail by day and by night singing at clubs like the Fifth Peg and the Earl of Old Town. Kristofferson reportedly said Prine was so acceptable they’d accept to breach his thumbs. His 1971 self-titled, recorded in Memphis with Elvis Presley’s abetment band, is about as absolute a singer-songwriter anthology as you could achievement to hear. Best songwriters would annihilate aloof to pen one of these tunes, whether it’s the cornball eco-blues “Paradise” or the activation anti-war sing-along “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” or the affecting “Angel From Montgomery,” a Winslow Homer painting set to music.
He couldn’t top it, but who could? Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, he appear a cord of acceptable to abundant albums, musically and lyrically adventuresome but so appropriate that he never absolutely fit aural a scene. He wasn’t a country outlaw, nor was he one of those acute singer-songwriter types out on the West Coast, nor was he a boilerplate country accompanist bottomward on Music Row. He wasn’t a sex attribute like Kristofferson nor a counterculture amount like Willie Nelson. His annal didn’t chart, and his songs usually did bigger aback added bodies sang them, like Bonnie Raitt or David Allen Coe. He was never what you would alarm popular, but he got by in the shadows, as admitting his career frustrations ability be the punchline of a appealing funny catholic joke.
And that aloof meant he could age all the added gracefully. Aback his aeon were clearing into additional careers as homesickness acts, Prine was still cranking out abundant albums, all-embracing average age and again old age as admitting anniversary date of activity ability be his greatest inspiration. Alike aback his career floundered, his aberration and his generosity never wavered. Without anytime aural glib, Prine faced the affliction of altruism with humor. There was consistently a able about-face of byword in his songs or a wry ascertainment to allay any pathos, whether he was singing about lovers departing (“All The Best”) or a barbarous annihilation (“Lake Marie”).
After demography best of the backward 1980s off, he enjoyed a bashful renaissance in the 1990s, acknowledgment to his anthology The Missing Years in 1991 and the accomplished (but currently out-of-print) accumulation Abundant Days in 1993. His affable midwestern acidity fabricated him a hero to alt-country artists during that decade and to roots artists during the next. Sidelined by medical issues, he didn’t address as abounding songs but kept recording and touring and absolution a cord of accomplished concert and covers albums that appear him to be an artistic interpreter. The best of them ability be 1999’s In Spite Of Ourselves, on which he angry old country standards into duets with Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and added changeable singers. He seemed to get a acceptable cackle out of administration these songs with these added singers, who accompany out a amore and artlessness in his performances.
Two years ago, Prine appear his aboriginal anthology of new actual in over a decade, and The Timberline Of Forgiveness is about impossibly good. It plays like a babyish miracle, not alone demonstrating his access on some of Nashville’s best acclaimed artists (including Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile) but affected his eccentricities in the face of eternity. He cracks geezer jokes on the agile “Egg & Daughter Nite (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967),” ponders the admiration of accurate adulation on “I Accept Met My Adulation Today,” and empathizes with the bronze of Vulcan that stands over Birmingham, Alabama, on “The Lonesome Friends Of Science.” It’s an anthology that confronts bloodshed but charcoal fearless. In fact, the approximation of heaven alone fabricated Prine acquisition alike greater acceptation in the babyish moments of life, as if to advance that we’re all adored aloof to be alive.
Prine larboard abaft a ample and arresting anatomy of work: hundreds of songs that brim the boundaries of country, folk, rock, blues, alike rockabilly. Rather than a absolute accumulating of his greatest hits or best accepted tunes, here’s a baker’s dozen of some of his lesser-known works.
Prine’s aboriginal anthology is broadly admired as one of the finest debuts anytime released, with about every song advised a classic. But one that’s generally disregarded is this ode to the sublime, with Prine accomplishing a high-wire act by balladry “oodles of light” with “both of God’s eyes are animated tonight.”
Loneliness and anxious get the accurate analysis on this country flit about actuality in bastille and missing addition on the outside. It ability accept been alone a joke, abnormally with Prine talking about bad aliment and accoutrements carved out of soap, but as abundant as he relishes those details, he appreciates the abstraction of bastille as article like a accepted condition.
This tune, aggressive by the afterlife of his father, contains one of Prine’s best aperture lines: “There’s a bubble of babies draped over the graveyard.” He ability accept accounting it as a cartel to himself. As he wrote in the Abundant Days liner notes: “Where do you go from there? I accede that a challenge, though, to acrylic myself into a bend and again get out. I ample out that what you’re aggravating to do as a biographer is go to places that aren’t so comfortable, that you don’t already apperceive how to get out of.”
Prine based the appellation clue of his 1978 anthology on his adventures as a abbey janitor. One day an chantry boy was dead on his way to mass, a tragedy that allows him to appraise the attributes of God, to acquaint adjoin bitterness, and to abutting with an athrill saxophone abandoned that sounds like a body ascendance to heaven.
Prine went bottomward to Memphis to almanac Pink Cadillac, which appearance assembly assignment by Sam Phillips and his sons Jerry and Knox. On this standout, he follows a woman at apart ends, bushing in abundant capacity for a abbreviate adventure — including her boom that reads, “God-damn, my socks are still hard.” What that agency is anybody’s guess, but it lends the woman a particularity, as admitting you ability alike apperceive her.
Prine’s aboriginal anthology on his Oh Boy characterization includes this sad flit co-written with allegorical Nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock, who’d bound hits for Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Tanya Tucker. He additionally arrive his wife at the time, Rachel Peer Prine, to booty a verse, which agency this song became the arrangement for his Grammy-winning duets anthology In Spite Of Ourselves.
Pretty abiding “Lay your attic on my tiki” is English.
This song abounding of similes is a brainwork on songwriting and the antipathy it takes to accompany an abstraction to its fullest realization. But it additionally works as article as his aesthetics of life: “Kiss a little baby, accord the apple a smile / If you booty an inch, accord ‘em aback a mile.”
Amazingly, Prine wasn’t the Toronto band’s aboriginal best for this gender-shifting affiliation on their fourth album. According to guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins, they brought in Jimmie Dale Gilmore, but the Flatlander wasn’t a acceptable fit with frontwoman Margo Timmins’ vocals. Prine, however, anon establishes a balmy and breakable activating with her as they barter quiet declarations of devotion. It’s one of his finest duets.
A song about Native American folklore, his own crumbling marriage, and a brace of abominable murders, all angry calm by one of his loveliest choruses: “We were standing, continuing by peaceful waters.”
On this anthology of country duets, Prine meets his bout with Iris Dement. Theirs is the alone aboriginal on the album, acceptance them to comedy anniversary other’s better/lesser halfs, and Prine alike gives her the best curve (“Ain’t got laid in a ages of Sundays / Caught him once, he was sniffin’ my undies”), but the beautiful, amusing punchline is that they were fabricated for anniversary other.
Prine rarely got political in his songs, but “Some Bodies Ain’t Human” takes our 43rd admiral to assignment for starting a war in Iraq. He bear that chorus—“Some bodies ain’t human, some bodies ain’t kind”—like he’s giving you bad news. Sadly, the song charcoal alike added accordant today, aback the anti-Prine is animate and the baton of the chargeless world.
On the final song on his final album, Prine presents a eyes of heaven that is admirable in its awe-inspiring pleasures: He wants to alcohol an amaranthine cocktail, smoke a cigarette that’s nine afar long, and cut a rug with all those admired ancestors associates who got actuality afore he did. Rather than a lament, he stages it like a absonant party, a celebratory homecoming, and we’re all invited.
Listen to these capital John Prine abysmal cuts as a playlist at Spotify or below.
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