Distancing #57: John Prine


On the April night when John Prine died, my father and I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. I was quarantining in my parents’ apartment in Massachusetts, a thousand miles from my home in Nashville. Eleanor and I had come up for a week in early March, and a week had turned into a month, then a month into the borderless present. It was still early days, but even then the concepts of early and late had begun to blur around the edges, like words in a language we were all starting to unlearn.

I was two months shy of thirty, and my father was seventy, and neither of us could sleep. I knew from the way he held his body against the doorframe that he had something on his mind. He came over to the couch, sat down at the far end of it, and asked me if I’d heard the news about John Prine.

That night, long after the rest of the family had gone to bed, my father named his favorite Prine songs, and I found them on my phone and played them. We listened like quiet parishioners in the hush of the living room, laughing at the gentle Jesus jokes in “The Missing Years” and singing along with the unforgettable chorus of “Angel from Montgomery.” We both got a little misty-eyed at “Far from Me,” maybe because so much of our lives felt far from us then, too, or maybe because Prine himself was far from us now, somewhere with all the golden pasts he’d hymned and mourned in his songs. But it was “Paradise,” his consummate ode to lost simplicity, that we played again and again, long into the night.

Moving to Nashville at twenty-seven confirmed my long-held suspicion: I have about as much country cred as a caprese sandwich on gluten-free bread. I’d like to say I found Prine’s music young—that I was raised on his gentle, piercing, funny songs, his childlike awe and his wisdom—but that would be a flat-out lie. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of all un-Prinely places, and stumbled into the wide pastures of Americana by the usual outsiders’ inroads, the crossover songbooks of stars like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. 

In my senior year of college, I was on a double-decker bus, heading back to school after the winter holidays. It was snowing hard, and as I watched the blizzard bury the endless sprawl of central Connecticut, listening to some Dylan-related Spotify playlist spiral away from Bob’s cracked-kettle voice, I heard another voice: one that sounded a thousand years old and twice as tired and trustworthy. 

Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?

This wasn’t the sort of music I usually listened to. The production was old-school, the rhythms were not the rhythms I’d learned to love. But Prine’s voice drew me into the details of this lost county, where the air smelled like snakes and the Green River ran on and on. Muhlenberg County sounded like no place I’d ever been, but its loss was still familiar to me. Like many great songs, “Paradise” is at once profoundly specific—it mourns the postindustrial decline of Prine’s father’s Kentucky hometown—and close to universal. Who doesn’t have their own Muhlenberg County to pine for, their own memories of simpler times and simpler places?

That whole last spring of college, I listened to Prine’s self-titled debut album on repeat. I’d never heard anyone do exactly what he does with songs. Dylan can distort reality into a kaleidoscope, and Leonard Cohen can distill it to a mystic koan, but Prine serves reality up exactly as it is, unvarnished. He must be ancient, I remember thinking—but there was a kid on the cover, looking innocent and winsome atop a bale of hay. “He’s twenty-four years old,” Kris Kristofferson once said, “and he writes like he’s 220.” 

I didn’t really know who Kris Kristofferson was back then—as I mentioned, I have all the country cred of a Birkenstock sandal drinking a Mike’s Hard Lemonade on a sailboat—but I knew what he meant. Where most songwriters’ first albums are about a bad breakup, John Prine is about the whole of life. It’s a novelistic feat of empathy, uncommonly interested in the world and the way others experience it. Sam Stone, with a hole in his arm and a mind warped by war; lonesome Donald and Lydia; the soldiers on their way to Montreal. The album offers me some solace now, when the pandemic has shrunk life down to the size of the screens that entertain and frighten and employ us. Like those screens, Prine’s songs are windows looking out on the world; unlike the screens, they help me remember how wide it is. 

In the months since his death, that first album been a constant companion. As I walk my neighborhood, looking for streets I haven’t already walked a dozen times, the song I keep coming back to is “Paradise.” It’s easier than ever, these days, to pine for some gilded past. There’s always some grace from which we’ve fallen, whether it’s a Kentucky town ruined by strip mining or a long-lost love or the Garden of Eden. It’s the foundational story in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam alike: that there was once a perfect time and place, but it’s far, far from us now. It’s also the story that drives most nationalist movements. The promise of paradise’s return is distilled to an acronym on President Trump’s red cap, but it’s also the basic principle of Joe Biden’s campaign to bring back a pre-2016 status quo. Both candidates gesture toward a lost paradise; they just disagree about when and where and for whom that paradise existed. 

John Prine may be one of our great poets of nostalgia, but even at twenty-four he knew the past was a slippery thing to put your chips on. His paradise is an illusion, always “waiting, just five miles away from wherever I am.” I like to think that if he were here today, he wouldn’t be dreaming about the past but staring the ugly present straight in the jaw, cracking a joke to make it laugh. As some artists age, they find refuge from the messy world in abstraction, or they get cynical. But it always seemed to me like Prine aged in the opposite direction. The darkest turns in his early work fell away over time, bringing his humor and affection into sharper relief. Instead of trying to stave off the sadness of life’s final years, his last songs sounded like the work of a person holding tightly onto the world. On his last record, there’s one about heading up to heaven, but heaven turns out to be a vodka and ginger ale, a tilt-a-whirl, a rock n’ roll band. 

In other words, more of the good stuff from down here, except all the time.

As Prine aged, he only seemed to fall more and more in love with the wondrous, vexing, imperfect world. How lucky for us that he let us fall with him, again and again. How lucky for a latecomer like me, to receive the gift of his voice as I round the corner onto my street for the hundredth time, under the pink of the oblivious cherry trees, while another still and flawless afternoon tilts inexorably towards night.

— John Miguel Shakespear
Cambridge and New Haven, day 61

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