Remembering John Prine, the songs and the stories

A mural of John Prine painted by Graham Allen of SquarePegs Studio and Design on the outside of Apollo Pizza, Lexington, KY. 

Cameron Luker

Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has left us stuck inside, bored and lonely. It has been hard on a lot of us as we feel disconnected from others and nature. In these dark times, we should take some time to celebrate the life of someone who could make every feeling of alienation and loss leave your body with the strum of his guitar a song and a smile.

John Prine lose his fight against COVID-19 on Tuesday, April 7. The folk singer started his career as a mailman who said “this is awful” at an open mic night at a bar in Chicago and took the stage himself. His career took off quickly with the help of some famous admirers including Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan.

You can escape into the simple beauty, insight, and humor in Prine’s songs, which has made him a favorite among other songwriters ranging from superstars like Johnny Cash and Roger Waters to twelve-year-olds learning their first few guitar chords and trying to piece together a rhyme.

I remember sitting in my bedroom after my guitar teacher taught me the song “Paradise.” Having been  raised on radio classic rock, the song changed me. The energy of the song wasn’t in the loudness or speed, but in the story. The song made me feel emotions that were “grown-up”. I felt prepared for how it would feel when the places we cherish are destroyed, and I knew that I had a friend in John Prine who would help me.

Years later, when I visited home and drove by the apartments and neighborhoods that had replaced the fields and woods where I had once played, I knew there was a song that would offer some comfort. Prine’s power was that his songs were all about the story, not about the artist. He could take on any character and speak their truth. From a lonely woman bored to death in “Angel from Montgomery” or a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran coming home in “Sam Stone,” Prine could portray strong feelings through words and advocate for others.

Some of his songs were deeply introspective and made it feel like you were sitting right beside him on a porch talking about the “Souvenirs” that life leaves us in our mind, or what he thought would happen “When I Get to Heaven.”

I’m glad he left us with that last song.

I listened to it a few times on repeat on my porch when I found out that John Prine had passed away. That song gave me some hope that his final moments were filled with thoughts of the good times to come. I looked up at the giant full moon and knew that somewhere past it he was dancing in a big nightclub with his family and friends while enjoying a vodka and ginger-ale.

Although he has left us behind, his legacy remains. He knew the power of a story and how telling one well could bring a lot of good into the world. Whether it was giving a voice to the forgotten or letting you know that you aren’t alone in feeling the way you do, John Prine’s stories were characterized by honesty, wisdom, compassion, and a healthy dose of humor.

As the prospect of life with coronavirus seems to stretch endlessly before us, we could use a few more stories in our world. We can talk about the things we used to do that we can’t wait to do again, continue the memories of those we lose along the way, and once we are finished, I hope we can tell a happy story of kindness and community that will inspire our children just like John Prine inspired us.