As I’m writing this, I don’t know if John Prine is going to make it. Fiona, John’s wife, announced yesterday that John had to be intubated and is in critical condition. In the following hours, there was an outpouring of support from artists that I love — among them Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and Kacey Musgraves. On Instagram, Jim James performed a beautiful cover of All The Best and Adrianne Lenker sang two of his songs including Illegal Smile, Prine’s pot love letter (although he rejects this interpretation, it’s tough to view it any other way).
I started to wonder why Prine seems to affect people in such an intense, personal way. People that listen to John Prine love him — the actual man, not just the songs.
I first heard of him when my Mom asked me to come to a concert of his several years back. Only having heard a description of him prior to the show, I wasn’t super psyched about the set but decided to tag along anyways. He doesn’t get around too good these days; it took him 45 seconds to get from the side of the stage to the mic but once he was there, I was blown away by his words. In consecutive songs, he effortlessly switched between singing a goofy but brilliant lyric like “I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve” and delivering a devastating gut punch with “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin, I suppose”.
Almost immediately, that show made me feel closer to my Mom. It dawned on me that the music she had spent years talking about might actually be good! Suddenly, I found myself starting to listen to CSNY, George Harrison albums, and a bunch of country music that I had previously ignored. Looking back on it, that concert has probably influenced more of what I have listened to in my 20s than any other single event. From that point forward, my Mom and I have shared a dialogue about music and it’s one of my favorite parts of our relationship.
It’s easy for me to think of Prine as a member of my own family. He has this amazing grandfatherly quality to him — if you don’t pay too much attention, it’d be easy to mistake him for a simple person but you’d miss out on immeasurable wisdom if you didn’t listen to every word carefully. Masked behind his folksy image and funny turns of phrase are some incredible pieces of biting political commentary like these lines from his debut record that proved to be just as relevant in the post-9/11, Iraq War world in which I came of age:
“But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore”
The thing that ultimately brings me back to his songs time and time again is that the overwhelming theme of his career has been spreading positivity and kindness. He is paying attention to the world and is acutely aware of all of the awful things occurring but is able to keep the smile on his face despite everything. Whether it’s telling people to check in on the elderly people in their life on “Hello In There” or these simple words from “It’s A Big Old Goofy World”, he’s taking an active role in trying to better his audience:
“Kiss a little baby
Give the world a smile
If you take an inch
Give ’em back a mile
Cause if you lie like a rug
And you don’t give a damn
You’re never gonna be
As happy as a clam”
As stars begin to fade, you hear a lot of talk about how “they may have passed but their legacy will live on”. It seems to me that this focus is usually on the music itself. And don’t get me wrong, I think John Prine’s songs are stunningly good but his legacy, to me, will be the thousands of people that he encouraged to be more kindhearted.
Ironically, about the only thing that is making me feel any better about John’s current medical situation are his songs about his own death. “Please Don’t Bury Me” is always good for a laugh and the closing track from his last album “When I Get To Heaven” is vintage Prine — it’s funny, gracious, wise, and full of joy.
We’re still not sure how his situation will turn out. In the meantime, I’m putting on my Prine records and trying to stay positive. Below, I’m sharing some of my favorite songs of his — give them a listen if you’re feeling down and need a pick-me-up. Or throw on “Sam Stone” if you want to lean into it and just cry.
I hope he’ll be okay. We need him right now.