John Prine was the best to ever do it, plain and simple. It’s the objective truth. When Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, three giants in the American songwriting scene, all claim that someone is the best American songwriter of all time, you have no choice but to listen, and John Prine was that someone. In terms of commercial success, Prine pales in comparison to the aforementioned behemoths, but in terms of legacy and influence, he’s right up there with them, maybe even a tier above. Since 1971, he has had a steady outpouring of music, having released his most recent record, the outstanding Tree of Forgiveness, in 2018. His music has influenced artists ranging from Bon Iver and Kurt Vile to Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell, among countless others.
On Mar. 19, his wife Fiona announced she had been diagnosed with COVID-19. However, she assured fans that Prine had been quarantined in their house apart from her. On Mar. 26, she revealed Prine had been admitted to the hospital due to corona-like symptoms. He was later intubated and in critical condition as of Mar. 28. A few days ago, on Apr. 7, he died of complications related to COVID-19, at age 73. Prine was a fighter, having beaten both squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck in 1993 and cancer in his left lung in 2013, returning to the tour circuit after only a few months of recovery. Given his age and compromised immune system, though, he just couldn’t get past coronavirus, despite taking extensive measures to protect himself.
It’s hard to accept that he’s gone, especially considering the circumstances, but it’s clear that he will not be forgotten. It may be cliche to say this, but his spirit will live on through his music. John Prine was the first artist that really stuck with me. And when I say stuck with me, I mean that he grabbed me and never let go.
I remember the very first time I heard a John Prine song. I was in middle school, frenzied to find something to replace the tired old songs that, thanks to the disc jockeys at the local classic rock station, spewed endlessly from the radio in my parents’ kitchen. It’s not that I hated these songs, but I had heard them all thousands of times. I needed something fresh, so every night before I went to sleep, I would spend hours creating and wading through Pandora stations, waiting for something to grab my ear. After one especially late night, I finally found exactly what I was looking for. I had never heard anything like it before, but I knew that it was just what I needed.
It was a live version of “Illegal Smile” from Prine’s self-titled debut album, recorded in 1988 at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. It was love at first listen. It was everything I had hoped for. It’s a silly song about smiling at things that aren’t funny, aided perfectly by a gently looping acoustic guitar. Prine’s charisma is immediately apparent as he banters back and forth with audience members and adlibs phrases like “Well done / Song of a gun / Hot dog bun / Attilla the Hun / My Sister … is a nun!” It’s hard not to be spellbound by “Illegal Smile.” It has everything that makes John Prine the best to ever do it, from the simple but not dumb lyrics to his friendly, familiar croak. It’s sharp, funny and empathetic, even if its lyrics don’t always make sense. It was the perfect introduction to John Prine.
Though it was impossible for Prine to become acquainted with all his fans — although I’m sure he would have liked to — he had the unique ability to touch each and every person who listened to his records. He simply understood people and did what he could to help them. Everyone has their own favorite John Prine song and few have the same favorite John Prine song because his songs covered every state of the human condition. Take 1978’s “Fish and Whistle,” for example. Prine ponders why we choose the paths we go down in life and the mistakes that go along with those choices. “Father forgive us for what we must do / You forgive us, we’ll forgive you / We’ll forgive each other until we both turn blue / Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in Heaven,” he sings on each chorus that rests between descriptions of undesirable scenarios. Prine carefully examines situations like working a job only to quit because you’re afraid of bees and are only being paid 50 cents an hour, or joining the army and repairing heavy machinery only to use your time off to go out drinking. Prine knew that everyone regrets some of the things they’ve done in the past, but that these things are the only way a person can grow and become who they really are. And in the end, everyone will end up in the same place, regardless of what they’ve done. This song, and all of Prine’s songs for that matter, are why he resonates with so many people.
At times, Prine was even defiant. On “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” off his 1971 self-titled debut, he protested the senseless killing and false valor that comes with war. He sets it all up in a way that only he could: humorously, with great care and sensitivity. In the opening verse he sings, “While digesting Reader’s Digest / In the back of the dirty book store / A plastic flag with gum on the back / Fell out on the floor,” going on to describe the feeling of superiority and pride that comes with displaying your patriotism for everyone to witness, even going as far as to stick these little plastic flags all over his car and his wife. However, he denounces this overt patriotism in the chorus as he softly lampoons, “But your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore / They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war / Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for.” The song provides scathing commentary on the suffering that blind patriotism can cause and demonstrates Prine’s astonishing ability to tackle difficult subjects with grace and poise while also making sure that each word he sings drives his point deeper and deeper into his listeners.
John Prine found himself at home making songs to fit a variety of moods, but he was often at his best when he was making heartbreakingly warm and saccharinely sad music, a tone he employed in much of his late music. His final record, The Tree of Forgiveness, is filled with this type of music. The most notable example, however, is the record’s closing track “When I Get to Heaven.” The song is largely a spoken-word list of the all things he’s going to do once he gets to heaven, only breaking form during the chorus as he erupts, “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.” Prine knew his time was bound to come and decided to use this song to make sure that something as sad as his death would be thought of as a happy thing, a way for him to do all of the things that he couldn’t do while he was alive.
I hope John Prine is able to experience all of his wildest dreams now. He worked so hard for them his entire life. After serving time in the Army during the Vietnam War, he landed a job as a mail delivery man. He battled and beat cancer twice. And somewhere in the process of living life, he managed to find the time to become one of America’s greatest songwriters. Maybe that was the secret to his craft; he lived a normal life and wrote about normal occurrences, but he brought a certain magic to it that no one else could have. I hope John Prine gets that vodka and ginger ale cocktail and that nine-mile-long cigarette. He deserves it. After all, it’s hard work being the best to ever do it.