It was a week ago that I learned that John Prine had died — apparently, the first Maker of The Music to fall victim to the Coronavirus pandemic.
I first heard of his passing from my favorite DJ on satellite radio, Earle Bailey. And Earle waited until the end of his of Deep Tracks shift — and you could tell why, because he got kind of choked up, as he signed off “from the dunes of Cape Cod.”
I got a little teary-eyed myself. That the Makers of The Music — the pop artists and rock and rollers of the 1960s and ’70s, in particular — would be stricken by this disease is unsurprising; they (and those of us who have listened to them since the beginning) are getting to be the age that makes them vulnerable to this virus. And they mostly didn’t take very good care of themselves, acquiring the kinds of underlying conditions that make the disease even deadlier.
I don’t know if John Prine fell into the latter category, but in thinking of the first Prine song I probably heard — as was the case for many of my introduction to artists, on Radio Free Madison — I came up with a couple candidates: “Illegal Smile” and “Sam Stone.” The former, in particular, had an illegal drug use theme, and I assumed it was at least semi-autobiographical.
Those are a couple examples of the wonderful lyrics that Prine, one of the best songwriters of his generation, penned. Other examples that come to mind are “Angel from Montgomery” (a bit of an oddment, a song written and sung by a man from a woman’s perspective), “Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV),” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” and “Paradise.”
Interestingly, all of the songs I’ve mentioned are from his self-titled first album, which came out in 1971. That LP helped him earn the first of 11 Grammy Award nominations, for Best New Artist, in 1972. He won two regular Grammies, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, in 1991 and 2005. He also received a 2020 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on Jan. 26 — less than two months before he developed COVID-19.
Prine’s back story, much of which I did not know, is interesting — for instance, that he came from the Chicago area, two hours from where I grew. He was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War — which figured in several of his songs — and served in Germany. After getting out of the service, Prine worked as a mail carrier, writing his early songs while on his route.
Prine got his start performing in the late ’60s, at open microphone sessions at a Windy City bar, when he heckled another performer, whose response was the equivalent of “You think you can do better?” He did, earning paying gigs immediately, and getting an invitation from Kris Kristofferson to open for him.
Nor was I aware that he had continued to perform and record — despite a couple major health challenges. A first bout with cancer in 1998 resulted in surgery-damaged nerves in his neck and radiation-burned salivary glands, requiring therapy before he could sing again and changing his voice. In 2013, he lost a piece of a lung to cancer, and had to rehabilitate again.
Prine recorded six albums after that first go-round with cancer, the most recent of those in 2018. My son-in-law — who, although young enough to be my grandson, shares many of my musical interests and tastes — has strongly recommended that last album, The Tree of Forgiveness,
After hearing of Prine’s death, and thinking about his music, it occurred to me that I didn’t own any of it. (Other than covers of his song, like Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel,” a Victor/Victoria thing — a woman singing a song written by a man from a woman’s perspective.) But I remembered that he had appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 50th-anniversary public TV special I’d DVRed, so I watched that.
The show includes a lot of great music, and guest appearances by other outstanding musicians, Jackson Browne, Vince Gill, Allison Krauss and Jerry Jeff Walker among them. Prine only sings “Paradise,” which is a wonderful song and one of my favorites of his.
Boning up on Prine history, I learned that the title, and the reference to Paradise in the lyrics, are not about some generic, idyllic place — his parents came from the town of Paradise, in Muhlenberg Co., Ky. One reason it became a favorite is because I have Kentucky roots, too.
“Paradise” is of course about the old hometown/turf being destroyed by coal mining. “Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” The last verse goes, “When I die let my ashes float down the Green River/Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam.”
The Rochester Dam was not a Tennessee Valley Authority project, but like that New Deal effort, it was an anti-Great Depression measure that flooded a bunch of private property. Because of my interest in my Kentucky roots, when driving back from Nashville in 2004 we stopped at the Land Between the Lakes interpretive center — those lakes being two TVA impoundments.
Reading about the communities wiped off the map in that process — places where people, perhaps some of them my relatives, had lived for a century and a half or more — was a punch in the gut. They wrote that all down as the progress of man, too, I guess.
But I digress. Seeing Prine on the Dirt Band show brought to mind one of the lines from “Illegal Smile”: “And all my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen.” The man performing bore little resemblance to the mustachioed, long-haired guy who looked out at us from those 1970s album covers. (Unsurprising, as those of us looking at his picture then look quite different now, too.)
But in his sport coat, with his hairline on its way to the back of his head and his clean-shaven face, John looked kind of like an insurance man. The voice had been rendered gravelly by the 1998 surgery and radiation therapy.
But I think Prine still had a voice, particularly in the sense of having things to say. And that voice has been taken from us, earlier than it need have been. I’m not sure we’ll see his like, or hear a voice like that, again.