John Prine died yesterday of COVID-19. I’d heard about him being put on a ventilator and being in critical condition, so I was expecting it to happen. Nevertheless, news his death shook me up badly.
I discovered Prine’s music in grad school. I read about his song “Sam Stone” while researching a paper on anti-war songs. I found a copy of the lyrics. They moved me and I started looking for his music. Chain record stores had nothing. I scoured independent stores in Tampa and found a used copy of German Afternoons on CD.
If it had been vinyl, I would have worn it out in a week. At the time, I played guitar at coffee house open-mic nights. I started incorporating songs from the album into my sets–mainly “Paradise” and “If She Were You.” They never failed to please. Later, I found more of his music. The lyrics to “Sam Stone” were poignant. Hearing him perform it knocked me down. “Angel from Montgomery” would get stuck in my head for days every time I heard it. And I think that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” should be mandatory listening.
I haven’t played my guitar in so long that the callouses on my fingertips have faded to nothing. But I still have the guitar I used to play at those open mic nights. Tonight I’m going to get it out, and I’m going to play “Paradise” as best as I can, and I’m probably going to cry all the way through it.
John Prine was never as famous as the musicians he inspired and influenced, but his songs were honest, and the world was a better place with him as a part of it.
May he rest in peace.