My Tribute to Good Old John Prine

I’ll admit it: the first time I heard John Prine’s voice was only two years ago. It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in late May, and I was pulling out of the driveway of a barbecue joint in Virginia. I’d eaten so well: fantastic pulled pork with mustard sauce, and brisket cooked in massive outdoor ovens. The blessed sun had poured down on me while I pulled on a beer.

I was on that high you get when you’re just starting out on a trip that you’ve looked forward to: nothing but anticipation and open road in your future. My wife and I were headed away for two nights for my birthday.

It was as if old John had written “Knocking On Your Screen Door” with Alison and I in mind: with this very moment in fact. Everything about the opening tune on John’s latest album was suited for the moment you finish your first meal on a road trip that is a much-needed break from the toil and trouble of every day life. (That first meal always seems to be the most memorable.)

“I’m knocking on your screen door in the summertime,” John crooned in that gravelly late-life voice of his. I would come to discover that this was quite different from the more nasal delivery of his earlier years, up until he fought off cancer in his neck in 1998 and then lung cancer in 2013. The main guitar rhythm was both steady and happy-go-lucky, the guitar solo in the middle of the song was short and to the point, and the whole song was so damn confident in the most understated way possible.

It represented the fruits of experience that had not gone to waste. It showed me what we all want: to live a life that doesn’t throw away the lessons we learn. Oh, we may teeter and stumble along and flirt with disaster or giving up, but the sheer musicianship spoke subtly about getting back up, and — with a chuckle and some grace — imparting a little wisdom to those who come after us.

The song was only 2 minutes and 20 seconds long. No need to go on longer than need be. Prine once said that songwriting is about “leaving out what’s not supposed to be there.”

What he did leave in was magic: Screen doors in the summertime. A can of pork and beans. “I can hear the train tracks through the laundry on the line.” Every time I hear the song I’ll think of that moment, that day, that trip. It’s the door not just to one special moment, but to the whole batch of memories from that trip that I’ll always share with my best friend: riding mountain bikes in the mud, getting in a fight, sitting on a back patio together and reading. As my friend John Dickerson said in a tribute to John Prine, “This is what happens when you listen to a John Prine song. He gets inside your memory.”

Two weeks later, I was in Cape Cod. That sounds great, but it wasn’t. I was at a work conference that I just really wasn’t enjoying. In fact I was downright depressed. I felt profoundly out of place, like I was in the wrong spot. I don’t know how common that feeling is. I just felt like I should not be there, and that I should be at my house, with my kids.

“Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”

I needed that one thing I could hold on to on that trip. It came in the form of a simple question from a good friend over breakfast: “How are you doing?” I could barely answer. But the sincerity behind the question was all that mattered, and it got me through. I tooled around the roads on the Cape between meetings listening to Prine’s first album from 1971, being regaled by his stories of Mr. Peabody’s coal train. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his line from “That’s the Way Life Goes” perfectly captured my state of mind: “It’s a half an inch of water but you think you’re gonna drown.”

For the most part, though, 2018 was a good year, and 2019 was a great year. We were out of the hardest part of raising small children, with our youngest turning 3 and then 4. Life had its challenges, but in a way, that birthday trip was noteworthy because of how exhausted we were by the simple act of being parents at the time. And it had been many years of that. That trip had been like an oxygen mask for two drowning people. But as that year went on, and into 2019, we weren’t drowning anymore. We could enjoy life, and there was a lot to enjoy.

Also I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian quasi-cult, and over the years, I’ve made good progress in scrapping some more toxic parts of that upbringing. Becoming a truer version of yourself is always a lifelong pursuit. But Prine was not only a soundtrack for that journey the past two years. His music was often a catalyst, drawing things out of me that I didn’t know were there, and imparting things to me I would have otherwise missed. “God Only Knows” was a standard I returned to often. It reassured me. Prine’s writing in that song is so tight, with the verses intertwining and doubling back on themselves: “God only knows when I’m not true / To the things that I say, and the things I do / And if I can’t be true to the things that I do / God only knows the way I feel.”

I listened to Prine many a day in our family’s sacred place, up in Maine in the summertime. I know that the old man will sing to me many more times on sun-splashed days there, or foggy ones. And I’ll sing him to others.

What I’m scratching at without much success is this: Prine’s maturity is the kind I want. It’s playful, smart, not self-serious, and joy-giving. I have a long way to go toward that in a lot of ways, but over the past few years I’ve started to grow proud of who I am along those lines, in a way that doesn’t make me an asshole.

Then there was Prine’s sense of humor. I sat with my kids and sang along to “Illegal Smile” and laughed. “Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down … and won.” And the kids and I had a hoot singing “When I Get to Heaven.” It takes a little bit of the sting out of Prine’s death, and out of this entire dark moment, to know that he’s undoubtedly puffing away on that nine-mile long cigarette and kissing that pretty girl right now.

A few months ago my Mom told me she was going to see Prine play this June in northern Virginia. I hadn’t even known she was a fan. I bought tickets soon after that conversation and was looking forward to sharing that moment with her. I think now we’ll FaceTime tomorrow and I can ask her what her favorite songs are. Maybe we’ll sing a few.

It’s not just me, by the way. You can tell Prine was special from the way he had this same effect on so many others. Watch the tributes that pour out over the coming days. People are going to miss that man dearly, because he touched them too. Watch Bill Murray describe how Prine’s music got him through and out of one of the lowest moments of depression in his life. And definitely watch Dickerson’s tribute to Prine at an event with the songwriter last June.

Dickerson had the good fortune to discover Prine three decades ago, and old John’s songs accompanied him through college, falling in love and getting married, having kids, and so on. Dickerson describes singing his kids to sleep with Prine songs when they were babies on his shoulder, and then watching his grown kids sing those same songs at a Prine concert years later.

“Emerson said a writer can use a single word and open up galaxies, and that’s what John Prine does,” Dickerson said. “At that moment John Prine had my entire world in a song.”

I didn’t have the same breadth of experience as Dickerson did, but nonetheless through his music John Prine helped create so much goodness in my life the last few years. And it won’t end here. Old John will live on in our memories, and in the ones we have yet to create while dancing and toe-tapping to that lovable voice full of gravel, singing his songs to others.

It’s a great loss, though, to say goodbye for now to someone who can write a song like this.

** [Verse 1]

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?

[Chorus]

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale

Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

’Cause this old man is goin’ to town

[Verse 2]

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back into showbusiness

I’m gonna open up a nightclub called “The Tree of Forgiveness”

And forgive everybody ever done me any harm

Why, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics

Buy ’em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ’em with my charm

[Chorus]

’Cause then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale

Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

Yeah this old man is goin’ to town

[Verse 3]

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm

What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?

And them I’m gonna go find my mom and dad, and good old brother Doug

Well I’ll bet him and cousin Jackie are still cuttin’ up a rug

I wanna see all my mama’s sisters, ’cause that’s where all the love starts

I miss ’em all like crazy, bless their little hearts

And I always will remember these words my daddy said

He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head”

I hope to prove him wrong… that is, when I get to heaven

[Chorus]

’Cause I’m gonna have a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale

Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

Yeah this old man is goin’ to town

Yeah this old man is goin’ to town *

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