The first newspaper review of John Prine was titled “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.” He’d been playing the Fifth Peg, a club in Chicago, when Roger Ebert wandered in and heard his set. “He starts slow,” Ebert wrote. “But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
When Prine died this week from complications of coronavirus, it was his way with words, his ability to transfix with the stories he sang, that received the most attention. Rolling Stone called him “one of America’s greatest songwriters,” while the New York Times praised the way he “chronicled the human condition.” When Prine first came on the scene in the early 1970s, Kris Kristofferson expressed amazement at his talents. “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy. John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs,” he joked. Decades later, Bob Dylan counted him among his own favorites. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said. “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
What made Prine’s songs cut so deeply? It’s not, as more than one remembrance of him suggested, simply his “literary” style, unsurpassed though it was. Prine is a poet of human connection (and its foil, loneliness), and it is his empathy, his boundless love for this world and the strange characters that inhabit it, that comes through his songs. He suffers with, laughs with, loves with those he sings about, and sings to. This ability to inhabit the lives of others—the way he revels in a person’s idiosyncrasies—is what gives his writing its quirky realism. It’s why he wrote about love so well, as he did in “In Spite of Ourselves”:
She thinks all my jokes are corny
Convict movies make her horny
She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs
Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs
She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’
I’m never gonna let her go
He connects with listeners not with sweeping, saccharine odes to love but through the small details that in their accumulation make a person who they are, rather than someone else. When we love someone, this is how it really is—this is what we really love. Prine didn’t write love songs; he wrote songs about people who fell in, or out of, love.
Prine’s songs sometimes feel as though he looked at the homes on his mail route week after week and tried to recreate the dramas, joy, heartbreak, and pain happening inside them. In “Boundless Love,” the narrator wakes up to the sound of a garbage truck, presumably hungover, and imagines returning to his lover in shame: “If I came home, would you let me in? / Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin?” That song has a happy ending, but Prine didn’t flinch from bleaker scenes behind the drawn curtains he passed. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose,” he sang in “Sam Stone,” a song about a veteran who returns from serving “overseas” and falls into a life of addiction and despair.
Prine would sometimes wave away questions about politics during interviews, but his songs, such as “Paradise” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” consistently express a kind of working-class consciousness, cut with delicious irony and humor. In the former, Prine channels the anger of a man who remembers a small Kentucky town destroyed by a coal company; in the latter, a biting send-up of a certain kind of patriotic Christian, we laugh but also get the point—“But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore / They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.”
Prine’s ability to imagine his way into the hopes and struggles of others made him a friend of those left behind by progress and put down by other people. But his attentiveness to, and wonder at, all this world had to offer meant that his sadder songs, or political songs, took place in the larger Prine universe, where laughter and joy prevailed. I remember seeing Prine play in Radio City Music Hall, part of a triumphant tour in support of his 2018 album, Tree of Forgiveness. He eventually sang an odd, beautiful song I love called “Lake Marie,” a song filled with lines like, “Many years later we found ourselves in Canada / Trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish.” Everyone stood up and sang along, swaying in unison to the chorus:
We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa, wah, oh wha, oh
Whoa, wah, oh wha, oh
John Prine’s gift was not just to connect with listeners, but to connect us to each other. We weren’t just looking at him on stage; we were seeing with him, through his songs. It’s a bitter irony, and a cause of wrenching grief, that a man who gave us this music almost certainly died alone and isolated, as many others who succumbed to this virus have. May his music sustain us in the daunting work ahead.
Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal.