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https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/john-prines-perfect-songs

Postscript

John Prine’s Perfect Songs

By Amanda Petrusich

April 8, 2020

The singer and songwriter John Prine died on Tuesday, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, of complications from COVID-19. Early in April, Prine and his wife, Fiona, both tested positive for the virus. Fiona recovered, but Prine was hospitalized and eventually placed on a ventilator. In the late nineties, Prine survived squamous-cell cancer—he underwent extensive surgery to excise diseased tissue, including a sizable chunk of his neck—and, in 2013, he was diagnosed with lung cancer but again recovered following surgery. The virus got him at seventy-three. He was unilaterally and instantly mourned.

Prine sang so often and so generously about death that it almost feels as if he were preëmptively soothing and reassuring his fans—saying, “Hey, please, don’t worry after me when I’m gone.” On “When I Get to Heaven,” the final song on “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his most recent album, from 2018, Prine talks about the afterlife as a kind of gentle bacchanal, in which all blunders and slights are forgiven, cocktails are strong, smokes are “nine miles long,” time is meaningless, and family is waiting. It’s a fantasy of absolution—of total relief—sung in Prine’s coarse, crusty voice, over a strummed guitar. During the chorus, a whole band pipes up: piano, backing vocals, more guitar, handclaps. I’m certain I’m not the only Prine fan who played it upon hearing the news, shortly after letting out a defeated little “Come on.” I was grasping about for consolation, and I found it. Even from beyond, Prine knew how to take care of us.

Prine was born on October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois, and started playing guitar as a teen-ager. He eventually joined the Army, served in West Germany, came home, and took a job as a mailman. The story of Prine’s discovery feels apocryphal. In 1970, when he was just twenty-three, he was playing a show at the Fifth Peg, a small folk club in Chicago. Roger Ebert, the film critic at the Chicago Sun Times, wandered in. (Prine later told Terry Gross that it was because the popcorn was too salty in the movie theatre, and Ebert had needed a beer.) Ebert was crushed by Prine’s precision and warmth. He forewent the film review. “Prine is good,” he wrote, in a concert review published the next day. “I never had an empty seat after that,” Prine said. He released his first album, “John Prine,” in 1971, on Atlantic Records. Seventeen more albums followed.

Writing requires discipline, practice, and hard work, but there’s a little bit of the sublime in it, too. You’ll hear poets talk, sometimes, about how a body can briefly become a medium—the language arrives quickly, as if it were being beamed in from the Big Elsewhere. It is hard to say where Prine’s best songs originated, though a person gets the sense that he was something of a savant when it came to observing and understanding the people around him, even—especially—the ones he didn’t know intimately. Calling Prine empathetic feels too easy, but he had an extraordinary ability to survey other people’s lives and to understand, without judgment, the sorts of choices they’d made. “Angel from Montgomery,” one of Prine’s most famous songs, begins with the line, “I am an old woman, named after my mother.” Prine was just twenty-four when he recorded it—what did he know about being an old woman? Everything, somehow. The song’s chorus is so rich and sodden with meaning, a person can chew it over for decades and still find it startling:

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.

For his entire career, Prine was beloved by other rough-and-tumble songwriters—Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen. Men with angst and gravitas. But I’ve always been stunned by how well Prine wrote for and about women. In 1974, Bonnie Raitt recorded “Angel from Montgomery” for her fourth album, “Streetlights,” and imbued the song with so much pathos and tenderness that it quickly became one of her signature tracks. In 1972, Bette Midler sang “Hello in There,” for her début album, “The Divine Miss M.” It’s a song about getting old, and giving up, and not giving up. Midler’s rendition is so spare and spooky that I find it hard to listen to very often, though, each time I do, I’m a little bit changed afterward. In 1983, Prine wrote “Unwed Fathers” for Tammy Wynette. It’s a song about an unplanned pregnancy in which no one is absolved, exactly, but no one is blamed. That’s one of Prine’s most extraordinary moves. He is not uninterested in accountability (people make mistakes, and of course those missteps should be recognized), but he is not sold on punishment, either. In 1973, he released a record called “Sweet Revenge.” The title felt like a little joke he was telling himself. Revenge is never really sweet, after all—“the black wind still moans.”

Prine had one of those faces that doesn’t come along very often—beautiful, rutted, expressive. He always looked just a little bemused, in part because his eyes were narrowed and slightly arched, curled into a sort of permanent smile. It takes an exceptionally kind-hearted person to sing the whole messy, stupid story of what it means to be human—the cruel and indulgent things we do, the way that we love—and make it sound so logical. I don’t know if there’s a word for what people felt when they saw him play; it’s the kind of soft gratitude that wells up when you look at someone and feel only thankful that they exist, and that you got to breathe the same air for a little while. Those losses are the hardest to metabolize. But it helps to think of Prine in the heaven he imagined, which is the heaven he deserves.

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https://www.johnprine.com/news/from-fiona-whelan-prine-

 

From Fiona Whelan Prine...

Our beloved John died yesterday evening at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville TN. We have no words to describe the grief our family is experiencing at this time. John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter in law Fanny, and by our grandchildren.

John contracted Covid-19 and in spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team at Vanderbilt he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body.

I sat with John - who was deeply sedated- in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity.

My dearest wish is that people of all ages take this virus seriously and follow guidelines set by the CDC. We send our condolences and love to the thousands of other American families who are grieving the loss of loved ones at this time - and to so many other families across the world. 

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world. John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.

In lieu of flowers or gifts at this time we would ask that a donation be made to one of the following non profits:

thistlefarms.org

roomintheinn.org

nashvillerescuemission.org

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Jason Isbell's piece in the NY Times - https://nyti.ms/2JRk5G9

Jason Isbell: John Prine Taught Me to Stay Vulnerable

If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest, clearest mirror of anyone.

By Jason Isbell

April 9, 2020

John Prine had the gift and the curse of great empathy.Credit...Paul Bergen/Redferns, via Getty Images

A few years ago, my wife, Amanda, was touring in Scandinavia with John Prine, and when they arrived in Sweden she saw him write “songwriter” on his customs form as his occupation. “When did you decide that it was OK to write ‘songwriter’ on these forms?” she asked him. “Today,” he told her. “I usually put dancer.”

John Prine was not a dancer. He was a songwriter and one of the best that ever lived, but he did love to dance. He danced around his house in Nashville with his wife, Fiona, danced in the driver’s seat of his beloved Cadillac and danced offstage every night, twirling an imaginary pocket watch. Once while performing onstage with John, I noticed him glance down past his Italian driving shoes to check the digital clock on the floor, and he saw me notice. He leaned in and whispered, “I wish we had more time.”

When John developed squamous cell cancer on his neck in 1998, his doctor told him he might never be able to sing again. John told him, “Doc, you’ve never heard me sing.” He didn’t consider himself to be much of a singer; his honest delivery had always been what mattered most. Cancer and the subsequent treatments left John with a low whisper of a singing voice, but one that, if anything, aligned even more perfectly with the hard-won wisdom of the characters he created.

John was known for his ability to tell stories that related universal emotions through the lens of his gigantic imagination. He constructed what Bob Dylan called “Midwestern mind trips” from the tedium of the everyday, and he was a master at concealing the work involved.

His songs sounded like they’d been easy to write, like they’d just fallen out of his mind like magic. He was praised for his dry humor and loved for his kindness and generosity. John had the courage to write plainly about the darkest aspects of the American experience in songs like “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; “Paradise,” about the devastating effects of strip mining on a Kentucky town; and “The Great Compromise,” about his disillusionment with his country. Among his peers in the legendary Nashville songwriting community of the 1980s, his songs were the gold standard.

Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.”

I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, “No, you’re not.” Then a light bulb went on, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right. John always got the details right. If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest mirror of anyone I have ever known. Sometimes it seemed like he had a window, and he would climb right through.

After John faced a second bout with cancer in 2013, it seemed as though he was playing in extra innings — but he made the most of every bit of it. When Amanda — a fiddler and one of John’s favorite people — and I went into the studio to play and sing on his final album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” we were amazed by the beauty of the songs he’d written after more than 50 years of writing music. John was still razor sharp and he still had a story to tell. On the subsequent tour he played to the biggest audiences he’d ever drawn. He turned 72 that year.

But John’s work wasn’t just about his own music. In 1984, he and his longtime manager Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein started the independent record label Oh Boy Records. In the mid-’80s the major labels seemed like the only game in town, but Oh Boy succeeded against the odds. It released John’s albums along with records by Kris Kristofferson, Dan Reeder and Todd Snider, and it’s still finding new talent and operating with its artists’ best interests in mind.

He was a mentor to me and to my wife, who even helped him work on his songs sometimes, in between playing pranks on him while they were on tour. John saw her as a brilliant songwriter in her own right, and if John said you were a great songwriter, you knew it was true.

And there was more to John’s life than music. John and Fiona Prine had a beautiful relationship, loving and balanced and kind. Fiona understood John better than anyone else. After Amanda and I were married, Amanda started asking all the couples we knew, “What’s the secret to staying together?” John and Fiona gave the same answer, and it was the best one we’ve heard so far: Stay vulnerable. John remained vulnerable in love and in his work. He never played it safe.

When I was a baby, my 17-year-old mother would lay me on a quilt on the floor of our trailer in Alabama and play John Prine albums on the stereo. Forty years later, my daughter would call him Uncle John as he bounced her on his knee. My wife and I would sing his songs with him in old theaters or sometimes in his living room. In the summer, we’d all eat hot dogs with our feet dangling in his swimming pool. Now he’s gone and my heart is broken.

This week, John Prine danced off this stage and onto the next one, and I like to think he’s somewhere sharing a song and a cocktail with all the friends he outlived.

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31 minutes ago, JimCT said:

Jason Isbell's piece in the NY Times - https://nyti.ms/2JRk5G9

Jason Isbell: John Prine Taught Me to Stay Vulnerable

If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest, clearest mirror of anyone.

By Jason Isbell

April 9, 2020

John Prine had the gift and the curse of great empathy.Credit...Paul Bergen/Redferns, via Getty Images

A few years ago, my wife, Amanda, was touring in Scandinavia with John Prine, and when they arrived in Sweden she saw him write “songwriter” on his customs form as his occupation. “When did you decide that it was OK to write ‘songwriter’ on these forms?” she asked him. “Today,” he told her. “I usually put dancer.”

John Prine was not a dancer. He was a songwriter and one of the best that ever lived, but he did love to dance. He danced around his house in Nashville with his wife, Fiona, danced in the driver’s seat of his beloved Cadillac and danced offstage every night, twirling an imaginary pocket watch. Once while performing onstage with John, I noticed him glance down past his Italian driving shoes to check the digital clock on the floor, and he saw me notice. He leaned in and whispered, “I wish we had more time.”

When John developed squamous cell cancer on his neck in 1998, his doctor told him he might never be able to sing again. John told him, “Doc, you’ve never heard me sing.” He didn’t consider himself to be much of a singer; his honest delivery had always been what mattered most. Cancer and the subsequent treatments left John with a low whisper of a singing voice, but one that, if anything, aligned even more perfectly with the hard-won wisdom of the characters he created.

John was known for his ability to tell stories that related universal emotions through the lens of his gigantic imagination. He constructed what Bob Dylan called “Midwestern mind trips” from the tedium of the everyday, and he was a master at concealing the work involved.

His songs sounded like they’d been easy to write, like they’d just fallen out of his mind like magic. He was praised for his dry humor and loved for his kindness and generosity. John had the courage to write plainly about the darkest aspects of the American experience in songs like “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; “Paradise,” about the devastating effects of strip mining on a Kentucky town; and “The Great Compromise,” about his disillusionment with his country. Among his peers in the legendary Nashville songwriting community of the 1980s, his songs were the gold standard.

Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.”

I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, “No, you’re not.” Then a light bulb went on, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right. John always got the details right. If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest mirror of anyone I have ever known. Sometimes it seemed like he had a window, and he would climb right through.

After John faced a second bout with cancer in 2013, it seemed as though he was playing in extra innings — but he made the most of every bit of it. When Amanda — a fiddler and one of John’s favorite people — and I went into the studio to play and sing on his final album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” we were amazed by the beauty of the songs he’d written after more than 50 years of writing music. John was still razor sharp and he still had a story to tell. On the subsequent tour he played to the biggest audiences he’d ever drawn. He turned 72 that year.

But John’s work wasn’t just about his own music. In 1984, he and his longtime manager Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein started the independent record label Oh Boy Records. In the mid-’80s the major labels seemed like the only game in town, but Oh Boy succeeded against the odds. It released John’s albums along with records by Kris Kristofferson, Dan Reeder and Todd Snider, and it’s still finding new talent and operating with its artists’ best interests in mind.

He was a mentor to me and to my wife, who even helped him work on his songs sometimes, in between playing pranks on him while they were on tour. John saw her as a brilliant songwriter in her own right, and if John said you were a great songwriter, you knew it was true.

And there was more to John’s life than music. John and Fiona Prine had a beautiful relationship, loving and balanced and kind. Fiona understood John better than anyone else. After Amanda and I were married, Amanda started asking all the couples we knew, “What’s the secret to staying together?” John and Fiona gave the same answer, and it was the best one we’ve heard so far: Stay vulnerable. John remained vulnerable in love and in his work. He never played it safe.

When I was a baby, my 17-year-old mother would lay me on a quilt on the floor of our trailer in Alabama and play John Prine albums on the stereo. Forty years later, my daughter would call him Uncle John as he bounced her on his knee. My wife and I would sing his songs with him in old theaters or sometimes in his living room. In the summer, we’d all eat hot dogs with our feet dangling in his swimming pool. Now he’s gone and my heart is broken.

This week, John Prine danced off this stage and onto the next one, and I like to think he’s somewhere sharing a song and a cocktail with all the friends he outlived.

Thank you for posting this @JimCT

I read it on a Twitter link but did not know how to extract the text to share here.

Jason and Amanda are quite prominent on the last album. You can hear them in the chorus of When I Get To Heaven.

 

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I can't find a video of the full audio of this, unfortunately, but it is available for download and streaming (I got it on iTunes a couple weeks back)

 

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Worthwhile read - https://americansongwriter.com/zen-of-john-prine/

The Zen of John Prine (In Three Lines) by Jason Wilber

Paul Zollo

April 10, 2020

John Prine’s longtime guitarist on three essential Prine lines

Jason Wilber. “Humor and sadness; joy and sorrow; innocence and experience. Gently he points out the absurdity that fills much of our lives. Somehow he does it without judgement or rancor. He laughs, cries, and shakes his head right along with the rest of us. You can tell he’s puzzled by it too.”


By JASON WILBER

I spent the last 24 years standing on many a darkened stage with John Prine, as his guitar player, and more recently his musical director. Watching, listening, and playing along while John spun tales of love and life and humanity. Staring out at the faces of an attentive, appreciative audience. Often I reminded myself to be present and appreciate the special moment we were all sharing. I always knew it would end someday, but that hasn’t made it any easier. John Prine and his songs have been a big part of my life.

In his songs, John beautifully illustrates the dualities of life. Humor and sadness; joy and sorrow; innocence and experience. Gently he points out the absurdity that fills much of our days. Somehow he does it without judgement or rancor. He laughs, cries, and shakes his head right along with the rest of us. You can tell: he’s puzzled by it all, too.

The Zen Studies Society describes Zen as “the direct experience of what we might call ultimate reality, or the absolute, yet it is not separate from the ordinary, the relative.” That’s also a pretty good description of John Prine’s songwriting. Within the ordinary, he found something much deeper.

I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite Prine song, but here are three passages that to me beautifully illustrate the Zen of John Prine.

1. “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, and come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?” 

From “Angel From Montgomery.” 

I’ve heard John describe his premise for “Angel from Montgomery” as a song about “a woman who feels older than she is.” That’s textbook John Prine. Simple but eloquent. There are many entire songs that aren’t as good as this one idea: A woman who feels older than she is. 

I played “Angel from Montgomery” with John hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It was one of his most requested and well-known songs, largely thanks to Bonnie Raitt’s classic version. The song was always well-received, but this line in particular always got shouts and applause. By that I mean that during the song, people listening were so moved that they cried out and/or applauded in reaction to this line as John sang it. They couldn’t even wait until the end of the song. 

The sentiment behind those words provokes such a response, people identify with them so much, that they are moved in the moment. It seems to touch some deep nerve. We’ve lived this. We’ve felt it. We’ve wondered about it for someone else, or ourselves. After everything you go through in life, how can you have nothing to say? About your day, or your work, or your feelings?

Life is bittersweet. The joy only intensifies the pain, and vice versa. 
 

2. “You know Kathy, she still laughs with me, but she waits just a second too long.”

From “Far From Me“

“Far From Me” is a wonderful, waltzing ballad. John wrote it about the first girl that broke his heart. “She made me a songwriter,” he often said when introducing the song. If you’ve never experienced the end of a romantic relationship, this line might not touch you. But for the other 99.9% of us, it cuts deep.

One piece of advice often given to writers is, “don’t tell us, show us”. This line is about as fine an example of that as you’ll find. With this couplet, John perfectly paints the twilight shade of feelings fading. 

John sets a wistful mood with simple striking images. A boy waits for his girlfriend as she closes up the cafe where she waits tables. She turns off the lights. She cleans the spoons. The radio plays. The scene has been well set by the time this line comes along midway through. The singer wishes things were the way they were before. But he knows they aren’t, and probably never will be again. 


3. “The compass rolled around and around.” 

From “Bottomless Lake.”

I was interviewing John once for a radio show I used to host. [In Search of a Song]. We were talking about his song “Bottomless Lake.” I told him one of my favorite lines was the one about the compass because it reminded me of an old movie. He said that it was his favorite line, too, and for the same reason. In movies of the 1940s and ’50s, a compass gyrating wildly was often used to show us that the world had gone topsy-turvy. You knew the characters in the story were about to get shipwrecked, travel through time, or be otherwise disoriented. 

John’s song was inspired by a childhood family fishing trip. His dad parked their car at the end of a long wooden pier that reached out over the lake. Towards the end of the day it suddenly got dark and a violent storm blew in. John’s family hurried to the car to escape the torrential downpour. Quickly they piled in with all their fishing and picnic gear and started driving back up the pier towards shore. John often said, “My mom didn’t think my dad was the best driver.”

About halfway up the pier, the rain became so intense that it overwhelmed the windshield wipers. On all sides the windows were covered with the rushing rain water. John’s mother covered her face and shrieked with terror. She thought they’d driven off the pier and were sinking down into the lake!

At first blush, John’s story is cartoon fantasy, not unlike Yellow Submarine. The family peering out the windows of their old American sedan as it descends through the depths. Passing the time telling jokes, eating what’s left of the fried chicken, soothing the baby, and reading the bible.

For anyone with a family, which is most of us, we can see the metaphor. In life we find ourselves bound together in a mutual journey with this small (or large) group of people. All together thrust into situations we never anticipated or maybe even considered possible. How deep is the lake? When will the food run out? No one can say for sure. “We’ll be there when we get there”, as many a father has said.

A Zen koan is a short riddle or phrase that is intended to prompt reflection. I don’t pretend to know anything about Zen koans, but many of the lines from John’s songs have served a similar purpose in my life. Both as a songwriter and as a performer, John Prine has a special ability to connect with people on a deep level. Not from a position of superiority, but rather through empathy and commiseration. By laughing at his own foibles, he draws us in. He found ways to tell us things we already knew, but couldn’t quite put into words ourselves.

The man may be gone, but his music lives on. When John sings, “Oooo baby, it’s a big old goofy world,” we can all nod our heads and agree. It sure is.

So long, boss, we love you.

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You only have to look at Jason's face as JP sings 'Lake Marie' on the West 54th Street film to know how much he admired John.  That's what struck me the very first time I saw that clip.

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1 hour ago, janeymarywendy said:

You only have to look at Jason's face as JP sings 'Lake Marie' on the West 54th Street film to know how much he admired John.  That's what struck me the very first time I saw that clip.

I'm so glad someone brought this up and said this... Part of why I have always loved that Sessions session is the interplay between John and Jason. I can imagine that for him (and David Jacques, his long time bass player) they must have lost a family member just as much as Fiona or the children.

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Half hour compilation of performances from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Enjoy.

 

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