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John Prine

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There are many reasons to hate what this pandemic has brought to our planet, but to me the cruelest blow to the music world was that we lost John Prine. Thousands of musicians have lost their incomes, their identity as creative artists and have been forced to find new ways to teach, play, or record music. Normally music would provide us with a unique way of looking at life and would help to soothe our souls. Everything about it has now changed, but the worst was that the voice of John Prine has been silenced. His humor and wisdom were unequaled and we shall not see his like again. Mr. Prine filled his songs with imagery we could all understand. I’ve always loved his music and respected his ability to construct such classic songs, but it has been astounding to me to realize how diverse his audience was and how much he was loved by so many people. He had the ability to say things that immediately clicked with people from all walks of life. If you do not already know his work, search it out and you will be rewarded. He understood the importance of a good belly laugh. His themes were often humorous, but John could cause us to feel loneliness and had an affinity with the sad folks who go through life wondering where the happiness has gone…

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John PrineSo yes, he could write songs that would rip your heart out, but he could also make us laugh and bring things into perspective. I love this line from his song Illegal Smile—“A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down, and won. It was 12 o’clock before I realized I was having no fun.” He’s the one who told us all to “Blow up the TV, throw away the papers, move to the country, build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try to find Jesus on your own.” In his song, Please Don’t Bury Me, he “Woke up this morning, Put on my slippers, Walked in the kitchen and died. And oh what a feeling when my soul went through the ceiling and on up into heaven I did ride.” He wrote about trying to pass around his body parts so they wouldn’t be put in the cold ground, and says “The deaf can take both of my ears, if they don’t mind the size. Give my stomach to Milwaukee if they run out of beer. Send my mouth way down south and kiss my ass goodbye.”

Sometime back in the 70s when I was playing with a bluegrass band in Colorado we opened for John Prine at a big auditorium in Durango. It was not a great idea. It was a Tuesday night, freezing cold, the gear was malfunctioning, the promoters were at each other’s throats and of course no one made any money. But even back then we knew what a great honor it was to play the same stage as John Prine. We did all wish the local newspaper that reviewed the concert hadn’t had a blaring headline the next morning that said “Great concert—too bad no one was there!” Crap like that can haunt you for years, so remember to always go hear live music when you have the opportunity!

I’ve been down this road before—I remember every tree. Every single blade of grass holds a special place for me. And I remember every town and every hotel room. And every song I ever sang on a guitar out of tune. I remember everything—things I can’t forget. The way you turned and smiled on me on the night that we first met. And I remember every night your ocean eyes of blue—how I miss you in the morning light, like roses miss the dew. I’ve been down this road before, alone as I can be. Careful not to let my past go sneaking up on me. Got no future in my happiness, though regrets are very few. Sometimes a little tenderness was the best that I could do.

The finest of poets. He makes me weep.

There is an excellent young singer/songwriter/guitarist named Kacey Musgraves who has been shaking things up a bit in Nashville with her honest lyrics and interesting themes. She approached John one night and asked him if he would like to smoke a doobie with her out in the parking lot, and though he declined, that gave her inspiration and eventually she wrote a funny and introspective song for John.

Get a little drunk, get a little loud. Stupid me and my rebel mouth. Ain’t all wrong but I ain’t alright. Don’t see the world in black and white. My grandma cried when I pierced my nose—I never liked doing what I was told. Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you, cause I ain’t walking in your shoes. I ain’t one to knock religion, though it’s always knocking me. Always running with the wrong crowd—right where I want to be. I’m not good at being careful—I just say what’s on my mind. Like my idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine.

John left us with a wealth of music and humor, and the truths he wrote about will be around for a long time. He taught us that “It’s a big old goofy world.”

John PrineMany people learned about classical music by watching cartoons when we were kids. The movie studios flagrantly stole from great classical and symphonic works for the sound tracks to their animation. The characters didn’t find their voices for a while so the early cartoons were all about interpreting the music. The artists would painstakingly draw frame after frame to fit the musical selections as much as the story line, which were often whimsical and sometimes full of pathos and rejection. I remember an ancient cartoon that had a bunch of barnyard animals playing Dixieland music, another with a Brahms lullaby as background music for a gang of baby chimps just settling down to bed in the jungle. Who could forget Bugs being endlessly chased by Elmer Fudd to the strains of Beethoven?

Music theatre evolved out of burlesque, which used music to accentuate their physical slapstick style of humor. Much of it was kind of silly, and certainly unrealistic—real life rarely has Navy guys dancing and singing their way across the deck of a ship, or pool-playing shysters leading the parade or aristocrats singing in the kitchen with the help. Often the lyrics to a song wouldn’t have anything to do with the story-line, but would be clever rhymes. As the audiences became more discerning and the performers wanted more substance, serious composers like Leonard Bernstein brought operatic story lines and formidable musical skills into writing for ‘light’ music theatre. His 1957 masterpiece of urban gang alienation, West Side Story, is still exciting and relevant, and will probably be playing somewhere in another 100 years. It dealt with serious issues, but I always liked the smart-alecky song Dear Officer Krubke, where the gang kid is telling the cop why he’s the way he is…

My Father is a bastard, my Ma’s a S.O.B., My Grandpa’s always plastered, My Grandma pushes tea. My Sister wears a moustache, My brother wears a dress, Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!” There’s a few funny rock songs, but most rockers tend to take themselves too seriously. Most country musicians tend to take the opposite sex too seriously. John (and my) parting words are from his album “The Tree of Forgiveness”. “When I get to heaven I’m gonna shake Gods hand. I’m gonna thank him for more blessings than one man can stand. Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock and roll band. Check into a swell hotel—ain’t the afterlife grand? Then I’m gonna get a cocktail—vodka and ginger ale! Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long. I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt a whirl, ‘cause this old man is going to town.

NancyI reckon this column is going to be my swan song. Thanks to Pat Cheek for encouraging me and for providing the opportunity for me to presume to be a writer. She was a great editor and supporter of my music and my words. Paul Rees did all the heavy lifting—his sense of style and creativity made this magazine look great. I hope David Bolger keeps things going—he’s a fine editor doing a tough job. As always, thanks for searching out and supporting live music. It’s important and good for your health! Encourage the youngsters, be kind, dance like there’s no tomorrow and sing even if your heart is breaking! Thanks to my Charley for putting up with my late-night writing binges and for telling me I played well.

In spite of ourselves we’ll end up sittin’ on a rainbow. Against all odds, honey we’re the big door prize. We’re gonna spite our noses right off of our faces. Won’t be nothin’ but big ‘ole hearts dancing in our eyes. JP

3 Responses to “John Prine”

  1. Dan P Buchan said:

    Beautifully told…Hope all going well Nance !!

  2. Jeff Hirsch said:

    Hi Nancy. Long time no contact. I just thought Id reach out and say hi. I am retired and living in Florida. John Prine was one of my favorite artists.
    I used to see him in the early days in Chicago. Take care….

  3. Anita Shapiro said:

    Thought about John Prine today and had to re-visit this article by Nancy Buchan. Such a beautiful tribute to an incredibly talented artist.

    One of the things we lost forever in the pandemic. We will never see John Prine perform live again. RIP

    Hoping we will see more from Nancy Buchan in the future. Always LOVED her columns along with those by Jack Ewing. Keeps me coming back to Quepolandia.