I had to close my web browser early this morning. Social media, news, emails, and forums are full of news of the death of John Prine from complications from COVID-19.
I don’t have the wisdom or stamina to write much about John Prine. He’s a songwriter who has been showing America the truth for a half century. His loss is incalculable. If we could trade a million self-promoting politicians for one more John Prine song, we’d come out ahead in the bargain. Way ahead.
Prine was from the outskirts of Chicago. He had deeply rural roots in Western Kentucky. His parents were part of the Kentucky migration north for work. Rural America was evident in his singing style, the characters who populated his songs, the values he expressed. If I were a better writer and in a better frame of mind, I’d quote you some. But, if you don’t already know them, you’ll find them on your own if you look just a little.
His best known song is quintessentially rural. “Paradise” tells the story of Paradise, Kentucky, a town that was gouged out of the earth by strip mining. The song was released six years before the passage of the surface-mine reclamation act. For my generation, “Paradise” was an anthem, an instructional pamphlet, a gospel, and – above all else – a piece of beautiful and effective art.
There’s so much more to John Prine’s music than this single song, important though it is. Prine makes you laugh till your belly hurts. And then makes you leave the room so folks don’t see you cry. And he does it with language so unpretentious and accessible, every other artist comes off just a little stuffier by comparison.
I’ve imagined a lot of bad things happening because of this damned train-wreck of a pandemic. But I never once considered that it would take John Prine, even when, just hours before I learned that he was on life support, I was listening to a song he wrote about going to heaven.
He kept surprising me with his directness until the very end.
There are a thousand John Prine lines to end this column with. I can’t bring myself to quote a single word. Nothing can neatly sum up this life and what it means to Americans.
Things shouldn’t end this way. But these days, they do. Someone should write a song about that.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.