This article is republished with permission from the Hoptown Chronicle.
Few places in rural America are so cherished for their connection to a song as Muhlenberg County is to people who revered the singer-songwriter John Prine for his blend of country and folk music.
His song “Paradise” — about the tiny coal town on the Green River that was wiped out by strip mining — immortalized the community for generations of listeners. He wrote the song for a self-titled album in 1971. It was the first of 18 studio albums he recorded. Prine died from COVID-19 at a Nashville hospital in April 2020 at age 73.
On Saturday, October 1, 2022, many of his fans found their way to Muhlenberg County for the dedication of the John Prine Memorial Park at Rochester Dam. They came from across Kentucky and from as far away as San Francisco and Seattle. Parking their cars and trucks in a field where corn had recently been harvested, they carried lawn chairs, guitars, cameras and dogs up to the park.
Numerous John Prine concert T-shirts, many faded and worn with age, were scattered throughout the audience. Some of his fans leaned on canes.
Prine’s parents, William and Verna, were from Paradise. They moved to a Chicago suburb before John was born but they visited relatives in Muhlenberg County when he was a boy. Those trips helped inspire the song “Paradise.” His father died of a heart attack at age 55, about a month before the first album was released.
Prine wrote, “When I die let my ashes float down the Green River. Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam. I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’. Just five miles away from wherever I am.”
Sometime after his death, a portion of his ashes were spread in the Green River and the rest were buried with his parents in Chicago, according to several news media reports.
At the park dedication, Fiona Whelan-Prine said she understood the importance of Western Kentucky to her future husband the first time they met. It was in 1988 at a Dublin music event.
“In the first 12 hours of knowing him, I knew all about this place, honestly, Muhlenberg County, Paradise, Rochester Dam, cousins, the relatives in Kentucky,” said Whelan-Prine, her back to the Green River and a crowd of roughly 400 in front of her.
“It was one of the big connections that he and I had together. I’m from a rural area in Ireland … a little town called Ardara, in County Donegal. It was one of the places that John most loved … we would go visit those relatives in that little village, and I know it brought him back to all of these memories that he shared with his family in these parts.”
Whelan-Prine said her family would help with more improvements to the park.
“My family are dedicated to community service, dedicated to making this world better just like John did,” she said.
It’s been hard to talk about her husband in the past tense, she said.
“But now I can say that there is a park here at the Rochester Dam, today in his name, and we can come and remember him and be with him. And remember all of the good that he left all of us,” she said.
More than 30 artists covered “Paradise,” among them John Denver, Lynn Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers, John Fogerty, Jimmy Buffett, Sturgill Simpson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. At most of Prine’s concerts, it was the last song he performed.
Hopkinsville resident Danny Clampet, a fan of Prine’s music for decades, rode with a friend to the park dedication and shot photographs of the event.
“He’s one of those guys, it wasn’t the voice. It wasn’t pristine,” said Clampet, who is 69. “But what he wrote was both humorous and tragic. He covered all the emotions.”
Clampet believed that Prine, who survived cancer, had a perspective on life because of his health struggles.
“I think he was a special human being. You never heard anyone say anything negative about him,” he said.
Clampet’s favorite Prine song is “Hello In There,” a lament of the loneliness people endure as they age. He wrote, “Ya know that old trees just grow stronger. And old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome. Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
But Prine also entertained listeners with his humor. In the song “When I Get to Heaven,” from his last album, he wrote, “‘Cause then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long. I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl. Yeah this old man is goin’ to town.”
County Judge-Executive Curtis McGehee announced at the dedication that every October will be celebrated as John Prine Month in Muhlenberg County.
A committee of local volunteers and the Muhlenberg County Tourism Commission led efforts to improve the park ahead of the dedication. A new pavilion with a red roof was built and picnic tables were installed. There are plans for a viewing deck at the river’s edge and for a new boat ramp.
Highlandbrook Nursery in Elkton donated 18 Chinkapin oak trees — one for each of Prine’s studio albums, including the critically acclaimed “The Tree of Forgiveness” in 2018 — to plant in the park. One of the organizers said oak trees are symbols of forgiveness, strength and courage that can live for 100 years or longer.
The audience sang “Paradise” to close the dedication. Some of them stayed to eat banana pudding, John Prine’s favorite dessert, under the new pavilion bearing his name.
Jennifer P. Brown is co-founder, publisher and editor of Hoptown Chronicle, an independent, nonprofit news publication based in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.