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John Prine Was Our Big, Corny, Dopey, Wonderful Uncle

The venerable singer-songwriter wrote unabashedly sentimental songs about drug addicts, the elderly and true love. It's been easy to take his greatness for granted — which is why his health scare and death hit a lot of us so hard

When my wife and I were getting married, one of my tasks was putting together the music for the dinner hour. These were the songs that I felt had special meaning for the two of us — that said something about our relationship and our sensibilities — so I had to include “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track off John Prine’s 1999 collection of duets. It’s about a man and wife taking turns explaining the secret of their rapport, and it’s filled with the corniest rhymes and goofiest jokes you’ve ever heard. It’s also so incredibly sentimental that it ought to make you gag. But it doesn’t, and that’s because it’s a John Prine song.

Accompanied by some pleasant acoustic-guitar picking, the man describes his girl like this:

She don’t like her eggs all runny
She thinks crossin’ her legs is funny
She looks down her nose at money
She gets it on like the Easter Bunny
She’s my baby, I’m her honey
I’m never gonna let her go 

And then country singer Iris DeMent, who plays the woman, says this about her fella:

He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays
Caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done
Drinks his beer like it’s oxygen
He’s my baby, I’m his honey
I’m never gonna let him go 

In a career that’s spanned 50 years — and, fingers crossed, isn’t over yet — Prine has written countless corny rhymes and goofy jokes, all set to the simplest, prettiest melodies in folk and country music. Where other singer-songwriters were confessional, sensitive or angling to be the voices of their generation, he just whipped out a series of sketches about bad love, good love, struggling Vietnam vets, lonely retirees, the flailing working class, guys in prison, even Dear Abby. His songs are so spare, yet so perfectly conceived, that it’s very easy to take them for granted — they seem effortless in a way that the imposing genius of a Bob Dylan or a Neil Young isn’t. His songs are so elemental that it feels like they’ve always been there.

That modesty carried over to his interviews, where his aw-shucks demeanor would have seemed utterly phony if it wasn’t so genuine. “I was really happy in Chicago, making more money than I ever envisioned, and doing that by playing my music,” he once said of his early career, before his 1971 self-titled debut came out, when he was just performing at clubs. “I was making a living, and I could sleep late. This, to me, was heaven. I didn’t owe anybody anything. If I had my druthers, I would have rather done that.”  

Instead, he earned the adoration of his peers — Dylan, Kris Kristofferson — and continued writing songs that weren’t everyman anthems but embodied the attitude of an ordinary guy who just happened to possess an endless fount of great tunes. He didn’t hide the emotionality of his songs, which often dripped with sentiment, but the no-nonsense tone of his voice helped to cut the treacle. Prine was unashamed of his feelings, and he communicated them as directly as humanly possible.

Maybe that’s why, in his 20s, he was able to compose two of the greatest first-person songs about being elderly that anyone’s ever come up with. “Hello in There” tells the story of the narrator and his wife Loretta, retired and long-time empty-nesters whose kids are scattered and whose friends have moved away or died. It’s not a song about mortality as much as it is about the condition of feeling forgotten, used up, useless. “Hello in There” will make you call your grandparents, if you’re lucky enough to still have them. And its chorus is a haunting warning about what old age could hold for all of us: 

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello” 

Then there’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which Bonnie Raitt would help make famous but originated in Prine’s own voice. The first lines: “I am an old woman / Named after my mother / My old man is another child that’s grown old.” She’s looking back at her life, which hasn’t been the happiest. And she has one wish: “Just give me one thing that I can hold on to / To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Man or woman, Prine sang your song.

Prine wrote songs that young people can have a hard time appreciating. When we’re in our 20s, we tend to scoff at sentiment, too wrapped up in the boundless energy of our youth and dismissive of the vulnerability that we associate with being old. Sentimentality is seen as a symptom of age — an inability to hold onto one’s edge. We fear emotion because it seems indicative of going soft — of growing old ourselves. It’s easy to think of Prine like you would a goofy uncle who tells silly jokes and always seems a bit off. The guy just loves you to death and doesn’t ask that much of you, so of course you undervalue him. But if he weren’t there, you’d miss him.

It’s hard to hold onto that kind of emotional transparency. Life turns people into cynics — especially those who start out openhearted. Prine went through three marriages — and has battled cancer over the last 20-plus years — but he’s never let go of that willingness to be a cornball optimist, to enjoy people’s endless infallibility. He forgives us our considerable faults — partly because he sees them in himself — and he’s modeled a way to be a genius that isn’t cruel, cocky or aloof. In fact, there are so many people just now becoming aware of Prine because of his scary COVID-19 diagnosis who don’t even know what a great artist he is. (Prine never carried around that kind of outsized reputation.) Just wait till the uninitiated catch up on all the songs that are just sitting there waiting to be discovered.

In recent times, Prine (who turned 73 in October) has been championed by a new generation of tough-but-tender country-rock musicians, like Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, and a new strain of wonderful cornballs, such as Kacey Musgraves. He was never cool, but he’s always been pretty lovable — and the fragility of his failing health over the last few decades made other artists realize they had to appreciate him while he was still here.

“We hold him up as our Hank Williams,” acclaimed songwriter Todd Snider said in 2017. “His music is like Huckleberry Finn. You get it, then you listen to it five years later and you really get it. And you listen to it five years later and you go, ‘I get it!’ And then 10 years later you go, ‘Now I get it.’”

In other words, you have to reach a certain age — have enough mileage on your tires — to properly absorb a John Prine song. Even as a mischievous young songwriter, he was an old soul, waiting for the rest of us to become mature enough to be as comfortable with optimism and emotions as he was. Whether he’s happily getting stoned in “Illegal Smile” or lamenting the drug-addict war veteran “Sam Stone,” he believed that to feel things deeply isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, that’s the point of being alive. Like those moony lovebirds in “In Spite of Ourselves,” he believed in something as terribly sappy as a happy ending: 

In spite of ourselves
We’ll end up a-sittin’ on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize
We’re gonna spite our noses right off of our faces
There won’t be nothin’ but big ol’ hearts dancin’ in our eyes 

On the final track on his most recent album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, he imagines what will happen “When I Get to Heaven.” He’s gonna smoke a lot, he figures, and reconnect with all the family members who went before him. As always, Prine sees the upside of the situation. “I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl,” he sings. “Yeah, this old man is goin’ to town.”

It’s funny to hear the once-young John Prine now in the position of being the old man. In “Hello in There,” he advocated the importance of reaching out to those in need. He taught us that we need to say hello. The thing is, I’m not ready yet to figure out how to say goodbye.