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My Life with John Prine

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Two years ago this weekend, I was supposed to be at a conference in Sacramento. Then a few weeks before that trip was scheduled to happen, a New Yorker friend of mine texted me to say that the woman he was seeing had a connection at Radio City Music Hall and could get him tickets for the John Prine Tree of Forgiveness album release show. It cost me some change fees, but I made the right choice.

My history with Prine runs as deep as does my history playing music. I remember as a teenager on camping trips with a friend and his family listening to his dad and uncle sitting around the campfire playing “Paradise.” Soon after I picked up a guitar for myself. I’m pretty sure “Angel from Montgomery” was the first song I learned to play front-to-back. Literally the last song I played for an audience, at a show in December last year, was a cover of “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”

The Prine show at Radio City wasn’t my first time seeing him live. At the Eaux Claires festival in west-central Wisconsin back in 2017, Bon Iver frontman and festival co-curator Justin Vernon organized a set billed as “Bon Iver Presents: John Prine and the American Songbook” that saw a bunch of people collaborating to cover Prine classics before a mini-set of Prine’s own. It was a very cool set — neat to see friends, colleagues, and inspirations cover my favorite songwriter’s songs and collaborate with him.

Radio City was, however, my first and only time getting to see a true Prine set. It was unforgettable — dominated by songs from his new record and his self-titled debut from forty-nine years ago, with a range of others mixed in. He made us laugh, as he always could. He made us cry, as he always could. Brandi Carlile showed up to sing with him. Sturgill Simpson opened and dueted with him. His family was there and his wife and son joined Prine, Carlile, and Simpson for the closing “When I Get to Heaven.” I cried a little extra then. I am crying a little extra now.

It’s cliche but true for folks to say that Prine, despite a late-life resurgence of recognition, never got his full due. He was beloved by songwriters — little fish like me, big fish like Dylan. As Kris Kristofferson once said, “If God’s got a favorite songwriter, I think it’s John Prine.” But it wasn’t until Tree of Forgiveness that one of his albums got past #30 on the Billboard charts. I don’t know if that bothered him. I suspect not. By all accounts he lived a deep and rich life.

Last night my friend Neal texted me about Prine. Among other things, he mentioned that he could hear Prine’s influence on my own songwriting. I’ve never been someone who studies other songwriters in the way that others do, looking at their song structures as I try to hone the craft. That works for some people, but the musician part of my body isn’t disciplined enough for that, for whatever reason. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve gotten more aware of how my influences seep into my consciousness and inform my writing. I think about listening to my friends Rick and Gary playing “Paradise” around the campfire. I think about the lines, “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel, and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land. Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” And I think about how fifteen years later I wrote a song about the devastation of my own part of the world. It’s not hard to get from A to B.

We’ve lost some great ones recently. Bigger names than Prine. Prince. Petty. Cohen. Bowie. All great. None of them hit me like this. This gutting is singular.

In 2016, at what has probably been the peak of my music career, as it were, I recorded a live session at the Daytrotter Studios. You only get a few songs to play in those sessions. If I was smart, I would’ve stuck only to songs from the new record I’d just put out. I wasn’t and I didn’t:

Rest well, John. I quite literally wouldn’t be the same without you. The world wouldn’t be either. Thanks for it all.

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