Broken hearts and dirty windows-Souvenirs
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this mornin’
Always look the same to me John Prine.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to write something about the passing of singer/songwriter John Prine. This piece has been rattling around in my brain like a loose screw under the hood of your car. So many people, more eloquent than me, people who knew John, worked with John, lived with John have put into words feelings that only that type of familiarity can raise.
Here is a link of a letter to the NY Times by Jason Isbell that made me cry.
The great singer/songwriter Vance Gilbert wrote a song in the style of Prine that if John were alive to hear it he would say; “Yeah, I kind of remember writing that one.”
In music, I’m a lyric guy. The words are always important. It drew me to Dylan, Browne, Springsteen, and Mitchell. Now, I appreciate all kinds of music, the mournful 12 note blues, the distorted thrashing of heavy metal, the creative improvisation of great jazz, and I can even stand about 60 seconds of polka, but I listen to words. Words form the story, the tale of the melody that I am attracted to, like ferrous metal to a magnet.
Story seems to die the death of a thousand cuts. When a great storyteller leaves, it’s like slicing our finger on the edge of an envelope. How can something so small hurt so badly? When we lost John Prine, it was like cutting the femoral artery.
I was introduced to his music over 30 years ago, as one of two guitar players in my son’s YMCA Indian Guides tribe. We were getting ready for the campfire nights and my friend Bill gave me the chords and words to some Prine songs. I was hooked. The kids laughed out loud at Please Don’t Bury Me and when they had gone to sleep under the stars the dads sat in stunned silence as we played Sam Stone.
What are the traits of a great storyteller? I’m not sure they are all definable in the context of an objective narrative. But I’ll give it a shot:
- I was never in the military. I didn’t go to Viet Nam and frankly found it hard to even imagine what it would do to someone. But when I heard Sam Stone, I no longer had to imagine, I knew.
- When I heard Angel From Montgomery, I was a little bemused. It’s in the first person and that person is a woman. John decided to write this tale of heartache from a female perspective. A good writer can take that risk.
- In Hello In There, he changes the pronoun to “we”. Again he is taking the position of storyteller from a completely different perspective. It’s not so much the role of the old couple, instead, he becomes loneliness.
- He made me laugh. You know, songs can do that and still be great stories. John proved that humor was a delivery mechanism that didn’t detract from the worth of a story, it simply turned it sideways.
- John and I share a trait, we both embrace simplicity. Harlan Howard once described country music as “three chords and the truth.” John wrote to that. When I play his music I am always pleasantly surprised how accessible it is to hack guitar players. The words of emotion flow across simple melodies. This creates that connection you often hear musicians speak of.
John had survived two cancer battles and when he first went into the hospital with the virus, he went from critical to stable and though I became hopeful, I kind of knew the ground was shaky.
I’m not sure why John’s death struck me so hard. Maybe it’s the isolation we find ourselves in. Maybe it’s more time to think. I don’t know, but the loss of someone who expertly crafted song after song left me thinking. I’m sad that we won’t have any new John Prine songs, but I am so grateful for the stories he left behind.
Kris Kristofferson, who kind of discovered John when he was a mailman and singing open mic stuff said this:
If God’s got a favorite songwriter, I guess its John Prine.