Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: John Prine

Will Burns | 8th April 2020

Will Burns celebrates the late, great country guitarist and folk singer, who has died aged 73

If I am remembering it right, and in fact if I was told the story right in the first place, then the MiniDisc in question found its way into Nigel from Rough Trade’s hands via Evan Dando himself. It was the period after Dando’s proper, serious fame, and the way I heard it he had an album of country and folk covers planned and had some rough demos on this MiniDisc. It was a forlorn period for me too; I had left home for a disastrous first stab at university. One of the few belongings I took with me was a little hi-fi my parents had bought me for the room I had in a soon-to-be-condemned residential block in South Woodford. CD, radio and—of all things—a MiniDisc player. Among the discs my old man gave me was a copy of this Evan Dando recording. Tim Hardin, Townes, Gram—they were all on there, but there was one song that just got right into my bones. It was woozy and slow and heavy, drenched in organ. But it was the lyrics that really scored themselves into me, and when I heard the line “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” I knew this wasn’t stuff of the usual order. The song was written by a songwriter called John Prine, and when, somewhat inevitably, I wound up having to move back to my mum and dad’s the following spring, I found his latest record permanently installed by the CD player. This was an album of country cover duets called In Spite of Ourselves and just as I’d done with that Evan Dando cover of ‘Sam Stone’ in my depressing little room at college, I listened to it a lot. 

It had been a bad year. Something truly terrible had happened the summer before I went off to college, and I was in no state to look after myself. I’d barely gone in after the first day, but I had found a few things I liked—clichéd, obvious things like the poetry and American novel courses. When I heard John Prine, especially on the title track of that album, the record’s only Prine original, duetting with Iris Dement, it was like hearing music, or more accurately songs, that lived up to the writers I had begun to admire. It was like Ray Carver in song form. This was writing character, not simply pure confession; this had craft, empathy, moral complexity. This was…  literature.

I listened to everything  I could get my hands on. My folks had a copy of his debut album, which had, in 1971, announced a songwriting talent of the highest order—‘Sam Stone’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Hello in There’ all had the pedigree of American standards. And the later work, where on albums like the much-loved Bruised Orange, Prine’s songs continued to transmit truly complex poetic distillations of American life—playful, humorous, but still shot through with a thoughtful, smart kind of melancholy. What Melville describes in Ahab as the ‘deep helpless sadness’. Forgiveness became a kind of theme, and there’s that somehow typically American blending of religious feeling with a kind of folk process—”We’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue/and we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven…” he sang on ‘Fish and Whistle’, Bruised Orange’s hopeful, almost jaunty opening track, which seems to anticipate the later speaker-singer of ‘In Spite of Ourselves’. Then there was the Grammy-winning The Missing Years, which was billed as comeback of sorts contemporaneously, though now seems more like simply another peerless set of songs built from Prine’s delicate guitar-picking, his laconic, easy melodic sensibility and incomparable, charming lyric gift. 

The biography was effortlessly romantic. Guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, military service in Germany, then the almost archetypal juggling of blue-collar work and a songwriting hobby. ‘Discovered’ by a songwriter of comparable supreme-genius in Kris Kristofferson, the approval of peers with that kind of heft remained a defining feature of Prine’s career after he decided to quit the day-jobs. Eighteen studio albums into that career, a career that also saw him survive two bouts of cancer, one of which softened that trademark rasp of a voice into something that sounded more like deep, grizzled experience and wisdom, what we are left with is something like a comforting. No matter how bad things get, Prine seemed to sing, he always managed to communicate the pure, unequivocal fact of forgiveness. 

There is an argument that America’s folk musicians, its bluesmen and women, its country singers (latterly its rappers)—the Dollys and the Woodys, the Ninas and the Johnnys and the Chuck Ds, have long constituted the country’s proxy moral compass—though perhaps it is at times a wild and even a broken one—that they have expressed experiences that privilege some alternative to the relentless corporatization of that mythic ‘dream’, that allow for indigenous as well as immigrant experiences of all kinds, that despite its denigration as primitive music, or ‘folk’ art, have forged a culture that can actually carry on its back the full load and implications of the American project. And while sections of the political class in what we might call a post-American West have never seemed so degraded, so bloated, so wrong-headed, the songs of John Prine feel genuinely radical in their reverence of the specific, the local, the small. They suggest that in amongst the unexamined nuts and bolts and wood chip and whiskey of so-called ordinary working lives you can find the big stuff—hope, love—life even—in all their corniness, and ask us to go on living, in spite of ourselves. And in spite now, of the passing of a songwriter who’s work has managed to capture a country, an epoch, a culture, unlike almost anything else. 

John Prine, 10 October 1946 – 7 April 2020


Will Burns and Wendy Barrett have pulled together their favourite songs from John Prine’s back catalogue, which you can listen to here.