By D.C. Bloom
Austin is a city of songwriters. And if you were to poll them all, I’d wager you’d find that a healthy percenage of them would argue for John Prine’s enshrinement on the Mount Rushmore of Song. He’d certainly be on mine, anyway — right along side Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Willie Nelson. Which is why I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that, prior to his most recent — No. 8 in his long career — taping of TV’s Austin City Limits at the Moody Theatre on June 5, I had somehow never managed to see Prine in concert.
Dylan and Springsteen I’ve seen perform countless times; Springsteen, most memorably, for four nights in a row during The River Tour in Landover, Maryland, and Dylan sometime in the 1980s at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., when the Man from Hibbing played a concert with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty. It was a scorching hot day in the nation’s capital, and both Dylan and Petty (but not the gleefully overweight and tie-dyed Jerry Garcia) were too cool for comfortable khaki shorts; I remember they were wearing skintight leather pants that seemed to radiate in the hundred degree D.C. swamp. And Willie I’ve seen at least half a dozen times, going back to before I even moved to Texas in 2005. Most recently I saw him ringing in the New Year at the Moody; like we all do over time, he’s clearly slowed down a tad, but he’s still as Willie as he’s ever been.
Woody Guthrie, of course, was sadly long gone before I ever learned to master my first F chord, that really difficult one that separates the wheat from the chafe for beginning guitar players. Finally being able to form an F that really rings and sings may sound like a small step if you’ve never picked up a guitar, but it proved to be a giant leap for my musical mankindness. With the F in my quiver, I could now play along with the albums on my stereo, and one of my favorites at the time was John Prine’s remarkable 1972 eponymous debut, which, pound for pound, is probably the finest collection of tunes any singing songwriter (let alone any singing mailman) has ever come out of the box with. Those may as well be bars of gold instead of bales of straw he’s sitting on on the cover, because 45 years on from its release, John Prine is, for my money, still the gold standard when it comes to the art of songwriting.
I’m still not sure how that album ever made it into the Bloom family record collection. It may have been because my older sister had fallen for one of those Get 10 Albums for 99 Cents Record Club deals of the time that then required the member to buy the album of the month at full price unless you told them otherwise. I don’t know, but my parents’ den would soon be filled with all sorts of late ’60s, early ’70s music that they couldn’t stand — and John Prine (along with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails) was my favorite.
I was just a pimply-faced high school kid back then, but I knew that this album was something special. From the opening track, which wryly admits Prine’s weakness for weed’s “illegal smiles” with a Willie-worthy wink — and a nod to the timeless advice that certainly resonates as much in the Trump era as it did in Nixon’s time that he receives from a helpful exotic dancer in “Spanish Pipedream,” the listener quickly learns that this is going to be an adventurous journey with a keen creator of characters, scenarios and confessional box atonements.
But it’s the next three songs that solidly stamped Prine as a potent powerhouse who would inspire budding songsmiths for decades to come.
It’s easy to forget that we Baby Boomers were still full of youthful piss and vinegar in the early ’70s and the divides of the generational battles that the previous decade had spawned were still deep and raw. So Prine’s reminder that the elderly protagonist of “Hello in There” still deserved the respect and empathy and a simple acknowledgment that any of us could offer to help make his dwindling days just a bit less lonely was something we all needed to hear. And still do. The pensive tale of an aging, quiet couple’s children scattered across the county or lost in a long ago war that defied understanding still speaks volumes through its simple chord progression and unforgettable imagery. I’ve been on the lookout for those “hollow ancient eyes” that could use a smile ever since. I know I still pass them by as if I didn’t care more often than I’d like to admit, but now that the sands are going out of my own hourglass with each passing year, I “get it” so much more than I did back in my youth.
Then Prine introduces us to a man named “Sam Stone,” the shattered returning World War II veteran who turns to self-medicating and filling that hole in his arm where all the money goes. It’s a sad and sweet song that may not last long on a broken radio, but again, it is timeless and seems sadly prescient of the experiences 1972’s Vietnam War returnees would encounter. When Sam Stone ends up in that flag-draped casket on a local heroes hill, he both precedes and predicts the futures of far too many veterans of more recent American wars, young men and women of today who turn to drugs or suicide in through the fog of depression and lost hope.
In the following “Paradise,” Prine narrates in first-person the story of his father’s Western Kentucky boyhood home that simply became a memory by a capricious robber baron named Peabody. The song may have put Meulenberg County forever on the lips of thousands of Prine folk apostles, but alas, we’re informed that Paradise no longer exists.
And then there’s the song that is perhaps his most well-known, thanks in no-small-part to Bonnie Raitt. In “Angel From Montgomery,” Prine adopts the point of view a woman looking back on her unfulfilled life and her desperate longings for “one thing I can hold onto.” When I first encounered the song a high school sophomore, I recall thinking what an incredible ballsy move that seemed to me for a guy to start out a song with the line, “I am an old woman named after my mother.” I would sing it at a high school talent show, and learned first-hand that some people can pull off taking on a woman’s point of view, and some can’t. But the song still jars and forces us today, especially in the wake of Weinstein et al, to walk a mile in the other gender’s shoes.
To say I played that whole record repeatedly all through the rest of my high school years, and that it left as much of an indelible mark on me as it did on most every songwriter I know and admire, would be an understatement. But for some reason, John Prine did not follow me to college. I guess it’s because by the time I left for the Univerity of Toledo, I had already turned to other kinds of music; folk music receded as Rockpile, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Elvis Costello 8-tracks filled the front seat of my perpetually overheating 1977 Ford Torino, and I left my worn-out John Prine album with its folksy drawl and simple fingerpicking behind at home. And never looked back.
That was until I started trying to write songs of my own a dozen years ago, after new waves had crashed, after the demands of young child raising had lifted and the nest had been emptied, after I had suffered the inevitable mid-life crisis of wondering why I was working so hard at a job I really didn’t like all that much. One day while kvetching with a colleague about how miserable I’d become, she suggested that I should make the trek to Kerrville to attend a songwriting workshop. I had recently picked up my old Ovation and building passable calluses again while playing in, of all things, a Northern Virginia praise band. I also started hitting a few local open mics, where I played a couple of dopey songs I’d written that were decidedly not praise band-worthy. So I made my way south by Southwest Airlines to pursue this new songwriting hobby of mine.
And that’s when I discovered that what Prine had made look so easy so long ago was damned hard to do. Not that I wasn’t trying. I found it was relatively easy for me to craft a somewhat funny song and make word play with whacky double entendres. But to write a pensive song that touches on real universal themes? Uh, not so much …
Adam Carroll, whose songwriting has often been compared to Prine’s, credits him with “changing the way I thought about life and writing in general.”
“My dad played ‘Sam Stone’ when I was about 10,” Carroll told me when I asked him about his own awakening. “That line, ‘Jesus died for nothin’ I s’pose,’ …’ I remember, even as a kid, what a heavy line that was for me.” Years later, when Carroll was 19 or 20, he pulled a copy of Prine’s greatest hits, Prime Prine, out of his dad’s vinyl collection, and was hooked.
“I don’t think a day went by when I didn’t listen to the songs from that album at least once a day for the next three or four years,” he continued. “I went to see Prine in Dallas around ’95 or so. By that time, I think I’d bought all of his albums. I remember being amazed that seeing him in person was everything I imagined it would be, and so much more. He’s mythic, and his live show far exceeded my expectations.”
That’s why, when a friend offered me tickets to the Prine ACL taping, I jumped at the chance to finally hear him and maybe learn how the hell he does it. Well, I didn’t really jump at the chance; I’m in a wheelchair these days, after a massive stroke I suffered in February of 2017 — an event that has left me wanting even more to say important things in song while I still can. And that stroke a long year and a half ago had occurred after two previous ones as well as two open-heart surgeries and an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Prine, of course, has also had recent bouts with the cold realities of mortality, having faced down throat cancer and battling his way back to the stage after radiation treatment left him with damaged salivary glands and nerve damage to his tongue that necessitated speech therapy that went on for more than a year. As a result, the voice on his new album — this year’s The Tree of Forgiveness — is one of an even wiser and older man who was been through a lot. And of a man who knows what it feels just to be thankful to be here.
So as we settled into our vantage point in the front row of Moody Theatre, I was delighted that I could now check off one more item on the ol’ bucket list. I was finally going to see John Prine, that guy whose music somehow spoke to me long before I had even half a hint of what life was all about.
Jason Wilbur, Prine’s longtime lead guitarist, was onstage right in front of us. I had the pleasure of opening for Jason a few years back at a house concert in South Austin. I’d asked Jason what he had learned about songwriting from all those years on the road with one of the best of them all.
“For over 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of … watching him do what he does from up close,” said Wilbur. “To be honest, it’s still kind of mystery to me … I don’t know that the special thing about John’s music can be put into words, other than his own. His unusual view points on life’s joys and sorrows allow you to appreciate them in ways that you might not have before.”
Life’s joys and sorrows both are on display in Prine’s newest songs on The Tree of Forgiveness, which were featured prominently during the ACL taping. I had pre-ordered the album when it was announced and it had been in heavy rotation on my iPad since the day it was magically downloaded and added to my iTunes library. New favorites like “Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967,” “I Have Met My Love Today,” and “Lonesome Friends of Science” prove that whatever that intangible thing that Prine has, it certainly is still going strong for him in his 70s. And while he didn’t reprise those early classics “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” — maybe he was saving those for his next Austin show (which happens to be going down this weekend, June 30, at Bass Concert Hall) — he did take us all back to Meulenberg County one more time.
“I remember listening to my father singing ‘Paradise’ since I’m a kid,” said songwriter Nathan Hamilton, to whom I’d given an extra ticket to the show. “It was great to hear and see Prine himself singing it himself all these years later.”
I know that I’ll probably never write a song half as good as Prine’s “Paradise.” Nor even one half as good as whatever the worst song he’s ever written is. But for any songwriter following in his footsteps and continually inspired by his writing, paradise lies in the continually striving to do what his songs have done since 1971: evoke fond memories of whatever we think of as home; elicit a smile or two (both the legal and illegal kind); and engender both kindness and empathy for those among us who continually seem to break the speed of the sound of loneliness.
Because if we ask that question WWJD with John as the J instead of Jesus, that’s the answer. And it’s probably the answer even if we leave Jesus in the equation. Which, just to be on the safe side, we’d better, because as Prine also sang on his debut release, those flag decals certainly ain’t enough to get us into heaven.