John Prine was of the best of us and one of America’s greatest songwriters. Prine throughout his career was always a soft, plain spoken singer that carried the weight of the world on his shoulders but with a smirk. His songs fell into two categories: devastatingly sad and fun-loving nonsense. Even on his first album, he rode this line; “Illegal Smile” was an actually hilarious song about stealing a little fun while “Sam Stone” told the story of a Vietnam vet that died by an overdose and contained maybe the greatest couplet of all time: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose”. John Prine was a man that saw the world for what it was: equally absurd as it was heartbreaking.
Prine’s career in music began just as ramshackle as his songs were. After graduating from high school, he took the advice of his brother and became a mailman, only writing songs in his downtime. He spoke of how being a mailman allowed him to “just drive around all day thinkin’ and comin’ up with tunes”. But his tenure as a mailman was cut short when he was drafted into the Vietnam war. Upon his return, his normal life continued until he went to an open mic night with friends in the late ’60s. He criticized the talent on stage so his friends challenged him to go up there and play, and he did. The crowd was so stunned by his performance he got a standing ovation. He spread through the Chicago folk scene like fire and the rest is history. Prine’s rise in his music career is a perfect reflection of who he was: patient, humble, but insatiable.
And that’s why his death hurts so bad. Prine passed away from COVID-19 symptoms at the age of 73 in the Vanderbilt medical center. His eye was keen and no one saw the world quite as clearly as he did. His insight will be just as missed as his music. Prine himself even knew this was inevitable. On his last album, 2018’s Tree of Forgiveness, he ended the record with the song “When I Get to Heaven” singing “I’m gonna get a cocktail/vodka and ginger ale/I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s 9 miles long”. I hope that wherever you are John, you’re doing just that.