The first John Prine song I heard was not technically his. “Clay Pigeons,” revitalized by Prine in his 2005 Grammy-winning album, “Fair and Square,” is originally a Blaze Foley song. But upon hearing it in the car some seven years ago, my father and I looked at one another in a sort of awe and stupor of bemusement. Something settled. This was it. This was one of the greatest songs we had ever heard, sung by one of the most delightful voices we could possibly fathom. John Prine cast us in his spell. Later that evening, we devoured portions of his vast discography. We would become fluent in his language, scholars of his poetry. His songs became one of our favorite things to share with one another, one of our favorite adventures to explore together.
John Prine became not only our favorite family musician, but one of our favorite writers. He would guide us through afternoons at home in the summer with the door swung open. He became our storyteller during car drives and plane rides. When I moved to New York three years ago, I often found myself listening, with my headphones in, as I plodded along the patchwork of this new city by foot: to the voice of my parents on the phone, to the stories of friends from far away, to the delicate wisdom of John Prine. There he was, always — a force so constant that his music felt like something more akin to a conversation with a friend, a close pal whose sageness is often turned to for warmth and counsel.
To that end, there is a kind of subtle kinship associated with meeting someone else who knows and loves John Prine. Not that this group is in any way minute or measured in magnitude — the breadth of John Prine’s legion of followers is far and wide. But those of us who recognize his greatness feel it as a privilege to do so. It is a distinct honor to love John Prine. When I meet someone who cares about John Prine the way that I do, we always share a smile, a tacit understanding that we are lucky to be privy to the purview of this remarkable person, this artist who — through his magnanimity and graciousness and pure poetry — made folktales into songs and made songs into a public service. Everything about his music evokes a tender nostalgia and, by some cosmic measure, a simultaneous realism that feels deeply rooted in the everyday. To call John Prine a master of his craft is an understatement. John Prine is meditation.
I use the word “is” because despite the fact that he is gone, and the fact that the world simply does not feel as pure and sacrosanct without him walking it alongside us, he is somehow with us every moment of every day. He keeps us humbled and remains as a pillar to lean on. A John Prine song can never leave you once you’ve heard it — it imprints itself in your heart, it makes you more vulnerable, it reminds you of what it means to be a human being and allows you to embrace the virtues of being one, in all of their troubles and glories. John Prine has always made us better. He always will.
When news struck on Tuesday, April 7 that John Prine had died due to coronavirus-related complications at Vanderbilt University hospital in Nashville, I wept.
I wept as my parents and I, now together as we shelter-in-place in California, watched a clip of John Prine singing “Sam Stone,” his all-too-pertinent hymn about a man who returns home from an unnamed, ambiguous “conflict overseas,” with the burden of a “Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” We listened quietly, and sometimes sang along, to the heart-rendering gentle tones of “Christmas in Prison,” “Hello in There” and “Unwed Fathers;” to the jovial pulsing of tongue-in-cheek love songs like “In Spite of Ourselves;” to the exceptionally clever, witty insights embedded within “The Sins of Memphisto” and “Please Don’t Bury Me;” to the spirited yet tasteful protest anthems like “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (you don’t have to read too much into that title to get the idea of how startlingly prescient it is for our current times, despite the fact that he first wrote the song in 1968). We listened to “Clay Pigeons,” because how could we not? When John Prine reminded us that “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round,” he was inviting us to reflect, to take a breather, to be kind. Perhaps that last point is Prine’s most constitutive one: his art was, above all else, invested in empathy.
There are a plethora of beautiful tributes currently published by The New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone, which detail a starting-guide of some of his most iconic songs for listeners who want to get acquainted with the magic of this man’s sprawling career. I will not go into lyrical analysis here, or turn this into a listicle of my favorite John Prine titles, but I will mention that turning to any of the songs on these lists might bring a bit of the clarity, comfort and solace now more than ever before.
My heart is still aching, but as the week draws to a close, my nerves start to feel a little less frayed. Part of this is because John Prine prepared those of us who loved him for this moment. And in his song, “When I Get to Heaven,” an homage to the grace with which he lived his life and the love with which he will continue to live it now, he promises us that when he gets to heaven, he will kick back, see the loved ones that he has missed for so long, “forgive anyone that has ever done him any harm,” drink a vodka and ginger ale. In short, we know that even though we miss him, he is having a rollicking good time.
In exchange for his promise, which has given me and so many other fans comfort, I promise to think of John Prine each and every day. Not that this will be difficult, or any sort of adjustment — his music is a constant source of wonder in the lives of many of his fans. But I still vow to take comfort and find courage in the presence he is leaving behind with us, in the memories I share with my father of seeing him perform live, in his lyrics and in his goodness. Because no matter where we have come and gone, or what we have experienced, he has been there with us, and I know that those of us who love him are always with him too.
Thank you, Mr. Prine, for being our friend. May that vodka and ginger ale hit the spot this evening, and every evening. Cheers to you.
Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected]