As this blog is being written, we’re about a month into this “new reality” where everything is defined by the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
Nothing is untouched by COVID-19. It has canceled sports, shuttered businesses, sidelined workers. It has even isolated many of us while pushing others directly into harm’s way to care for the sick and dying, and now it has taken an Americana storyteller & national treasure.
You see, most of the world woke this week to the news that COVID-19 had taken yet another extraordinary life from us. This time, the virus claimed John Prine, perhaps one of the most influential and substantive songwriters of the 20th-century. Case in point is Prine’s rendition of my FAVORITEversion of My Old Kentucky Home.
You see our program MoxieTalk with Kirt Jacobs, originates from Louisville, KY., so there is a special place in our hearts for this melancholy tune that speaks to the simple longing of home!
Once the poignancy of Prine’s passing settled over our bones, the thought of his passing seemed almost prescient, even parallel in some way, to how Prine viewed the world through his music. Any follower of Prine’s music catalog would soon be keenly aware of his humorous lyrics about love, life, and current events, as well as serious songs with social commentary, and songs which recollect melancholy tales from his life. So it seems rather “poetic” he would be taken by a disease that has literally altered the face of Planet Earth for the last several weeks, and maybe forever?
His folk-country tinged songs have been gently speaking profound truth into our lives for decades. He’s told the stories of elderly couples, Vietnam War veterans, women trapped in hopeless situations, and so many more. His songs are intimate, authentic, sometimes humorous portals into the lives of neighbors and strangers. Some of those audio portraits resonated so powerfully they became anthems for movements and are now part of the American songbook. He earned multiple nominations and two Grammys for folk album of the year as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award.
It takes moxie to speak truthfully, and even more, to speak others’ truth.
John Prine had it and here’s how:
Before he hit it big as a singer-songwriter, Prine was a mailman. As he roamed his route, he wrote songs that would eventually find their way on to his albums.
He was drafted to serve during the Vietnam War and ended up stationed in Germany. He used his experiences to shape one of his most influential songs, Sam Stone, about a Vietnam veteran who turns to drugs after returning from the war.
Prine never seemed to waste an opportunity to deeply observe the nuance and details of life around him and translate those experiences into wise, tender tunes. His skill only sharpened with time, too, undulled by widespread acclaim and success.
Moxie blazes a trail.
Prine’s uncanny skill as a singer-songwriter earned him a following in the 1960s Chicago folk scene. Film critic Roger Ebert stumbled across Prine early in his career and became a fan. It wasn’t long until Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka sought out Prine for a special performance; they invited him to perform in New York City, and Prine had a contract with a major label the next day.
But while being on a major label surely had its benefits, it was far from perfect. According to this post from Rolling Stone:
Prine likened the major-label system to a bank “for high-finance loans. You could go to a bank and do the same thing for less money and put a loan behind your career instead of a major label throwing parties for you and charging you, and giving you the ticket and not asking what you want to eat.”
Prine eventually grew weary of the way big labels did business, and so he launched his own family-run label, Oh Boy, in the early 1980s. The label became a launchpad and roadmap for other singer-songwriters who perhaps weren’t geared towards filling stadiums and cavernous concert venues with raucous fans.
“He created the job I have,” songwriter Todd Snider is quoted as saying in this post from Rolling Stone. “Especially when he went to his own label, and started doing it with his own family and team. Before him, there was nothing for someone like Jason Isbell to aspire to, besides maybe Springsteen.”
Moxie has stories left to tell.
Prine was 73 and passed away after a short battle with COVID-19. He’d beaten cancer several years ago, but novel coronavirus proved to be too much.
He had just returned from a tour in Europe, where he was playing tunes from his long career as well as his latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness, which released two years ago this month on April 13th, 2018.
Now his songs will live on through the artists who have covered them over the years, including Bonnie Raitt (“Angels in Montgomery”) and Miranda Lambert (“That’s the Way That the World Goes Round”) and dozens of others.
But I’m grieved that there are now stories that are left untold. I wonder what he would have observed and written about in these times. I can almost imagine his humorous takes on homeschooling and work at home parenting. I wonder how he would have communicated the exquisite pain of couples in failing marriages being quarantined together, or the intense loneliness and fear of a senior citizen isolated in a nursing home.
I often ask my guests how they would like to be remembered. I’ll remember John Prine as the blue-collar poet of America. How will you remember him?