I played my guitar for the first time in years last week in honor of John Prine. I haven’t played it since and although I want to play more, I probably won’t.
It had been five years since I last played. I was rusty, for sure, but I thought I hadn’t lost much skill. I could get back to where I was five years ago without much effort. The trouble is that I wouldn’t likely get much better than that, either. The reason I stopped playing was that I reached a plateau. I couldn’t increase my skill any farther without devoting more time to practice than I could spare.
Broadcaster Ira Glass talked the fact that as beginners, creative people often have less skill than taste. The gap between what they want to create and what they can create is disappointing. That disappointment is why many quit. That is where I was: unsatisfied with my skill, but unable to improve. If I’d had the time, I don’t doubt that I could have been a very good guitarist. But writing called to me more than playing did, and so I decided to focus on fiction.
I’m almost halfway through revising my latest novel, with the working title Faithless. It is the best thing I’ve ever written, and when I finish this revision, it will be better still. For the first time, I look forward to trying to find an agent because the story is good. I believe there’s at least one agent out there who will see its potential and find it a home. And my next novel (already percolating in my mind) will be better still.
I miss playing guitar sometimes, but I made the right choice to set it aside.
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.
(Photo by ANNI GUPTA on Unsplash)