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John Prine Was An Icon Who Represented The Best Of America

The great John Prine, who survived two cancer scares and various other calamities during one of the most storied careers in modern American music, died Tuesday at the age of 73. He had been in intensive care for 13 days at a Nashville hospital before succumbing to complications from COVID-19. While Prine — a humble giant with a self-deprecating wit and unassuming manner that belied his beloved and universally acknowledged genius as an artist — would shrug off such a distinction, his death is nothing less than a national tragedy. This shouldn’t have happened now. He had earned more years, with interest.

When I interviewed Prine in 2018, upon the release of his excellent final album, The Tree Of Forgiveness, he did not behave like a man who was content to simply wind down his career. “Things are going real well,” he insisted. “I’ve had cancer twice, and when you go through scares like that, you end up with more doctors, in a good way. When I got my second cancer, the doctor saw that coming down the line. I said, ‘Just go ahead and cut it out and come back and don’t tell me I have cancer.’ And that’s exactly what they did. The doctors, as rotten as my whole body is, they know everything about it, and they can see stuff.”

In his final years, Prine was still an in-demand touring act, playing dozens of dates in front of sold-out theater audiences all over the country. He was also one of the most respected patriarchs of American folk music. From the time that Prine first emerged with his instant classic self-titled 1971 debut — loaded with iconic songs like “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There,” “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” and many others — he was the consummate songwriter’s songwriter, valued for his ability to convey profound truths about everyday existence as experienced by normal people, via the simplest language and an elegant, witty finesse. His peers heaped praise upon him, starting with Bob Dylan, who summed up Prine’s style as “pure Proustian existentialism,” while also identifying the essential middle-Americanism of his perspective.

In recent years, Prine was a touchstone for up-and-coming singer-songwriters, one of the rare old lions that seemingly every generation could agree upon. Seemingly every young artist in the rock, folk, or Americana genre that I’ve interviewed has cited him as an inspiration: Jason Isbell, Justin Vernon, Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, and Kurt Vile are just a small handful of the young turks that have proclaimed his greatness.

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In “Sam Stone,” a harrowing story song about a Vietnam veteran who turns to heroin in the midst of a troubled homecoming, Prine wrote one of the most despairing lyrics in all of modern music: “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” But more often, Prine had a lighter touch, leavening a tough truth with the grace of an incisive (or plain old corny) joke. That was the essence of his humanity as a songwriter — he was both the funniest and the saddest guy in the room, sometimes simultaneously.

One of my favorite John Prine songs is “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone,” from 1978’s Bruised Orange. The logline is pure farce: A young actor stars in a B-movie in which he plays an elephant boy, and a craven producer wants to send him on a promotional trip to the midwest to bail out the failing film. But while the set-up is comedic, the details are ultimately gut-wrenching. Prine not only dwells on the humiliating plight of the actor, but also the producer, who is “staring at the numbers on his telephone” and wondering how he and this kid ever ended up in such a dehumanizing business.

It’s the kind of eccentric tune that makes you laugh the first 10 times you hear it, and then cry the next 100 times. It is, in other words, a prototypical John Prine song. As the Hank Williams of the upper midwest, Prine was perfectly attuned to his region’s emotional temperament. While Prine lived for the past several decades in Nashville, he still felt most at home in the region where he came up. “The midwestern thing doesn’t leave you,” he told me. “Whenever I get back up to Milwaukee or Chicago, you walk into a burger place and everybody looks like your kind of people.”

On the outside, he always girded himself with a crooked smile. In his earlier years, he would also keep a cigarette in his mouth at a downward 45-degree angle, along with a stiff cocktail at the ready and several one-liners locked and loaded to be dispersed at a moment’s discretion. But beneath all of that was a well of empathy reserved for anyone and everyone who might not otherwise be acknowledged in durable songs by nationally recognized recording artists.

In life as well as his art, John Prine seemed like the best of America — unpretentious yet well-read, grounded yet forward-thinking, funny as hell but never at the expense of others, salt of the earth but also aspirational toward something higher and greater than himself. When I talked to him, I expressed amazement that he had written so many of his most famous songs when he was employed as a mail carrier in his early 20s. For years, he would go door to door, delivering letters and packages to strangers like a genius playacting as an automaton, all the while working out the lyrics to masterworks like “Hello In There” and “Angel From Montgomery” in his head.

“My daydream back then was songwriting,” he said. “That was my hobby, but I wasn’t thinking about doing it professionally. I had a lot of time on my hands and I was on the mail route, and I wrote some of those earlier songs out there because I didn’t have nothing else to do.”

Speaking to Prine was a bit like listening to his songs — he was so charming and engaging that you could almost overlook the profound wisdom of what he was revealing to you. This was a man who found a way to create something extraordinary while performing utterly mundane tasks. And he did it because there simply was nothing else to do. If you’re alive, you live, simple as that.

A song from The Tree Of Forgiveness I can’t help but think about now is “When I Get Heaven.” Based on the title, you might assume it’s a maudlin meditation on death. But if you assume that, you don’t know John Prine. It is, in fact, the most side-splitting song on the record. Prine fantasizes about the afterlife — not because he has a death wish, but because he imagines that heaven is the one place where he might once again smoke a cigarette that’s “nine miles long” while also enjoying a delicious vodka and ginger ale cocktail.

“I love smoking, and I quit 20 years ago when I got my first cancer,” he told me. “When I see somebody fire up outside a restaurant, I want to go over and stand by them so I can get that first whiff. I miss it that much.

“Before I had the subject matter, the song was like waiting for happy hour,” he continued. “You know, like, ‘I can’t wait to have my favorite drink at five o’clock, and I might as well have a cigarette that’s nine miles long with it.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Where could I do that?’ I can go have the drink, but I’ll never be able to smoke until I get to heaven. I couldn’t have any cancer there, and why would they have ‘no smoking’ signs in heaven? So, that’s why I made the song that way.

“It’s the lengths you’ll go to,” he concluded. “Like what you’ll do for love, you know?”

Soon after that, our interview ended. We each hung up the phone, and he was gone.