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John Prine's Songs Saw The Whole Of Us

John Prine in Atlanta in 1975.
Tom Hill
Getty Images
John Prine in Atlanta in 1975.

When I heard that John Prine was dead, and would never be going to Arnold's Country Kitchen again to nab the last piece of banana cream pie; and that I'd never stand in a packed room full of old hippies and young hipsters and just plain folks and bellow out the words to "In Spite of Ourselves" as he chuckled at all of us; that I'd never meet another young songwriter who'd recently been blessed the wisdom he offered as Nashville's most generous mentor; that old friends like Bonnie Raitt would never grinningly match his pothole-filled vocals in a perfect duet; that all over the world people are pouring out Handsome Johnnys (diet ginger ale and vodka, preferably Smirnoff) and mourning the loss of the singer-songwriter they all felt was a friend — at first I said, no. This cannot be.

My hometown of Nashville can't continue to exist without him in the corner of nearly every musical frame, from the mural adorned with his scrunchy face and the words STAY INDEPENDENT on the side wall of Grimey's record shop to the stages and studios where artists like Miranda Lambert and Jason Isbell have tried to live up to his example. Storytelling itself, at least the kind involving guitars, feels a bit endangered without Prine's gimlet eye guiding it. He hadn't been well, off and on, for many years, but he also seemed oddly indestructible. Everyone's love and need for his presence wove protection around him.

But we are living in a time when no concept of protection seems adequate. Acknowledging that, I turned to Prine's music. This is how we honor our losses as music fans: by holding close the recordings that keep a voice resonant past mortality. Leafing through the pile of some of the best-named albums in history — Bruised Orange, German Afternoons, Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, The Singing Mailman Delivers -- I stopped at the familiar favorites, the trenchant views into regular lives like the addict's elegy "Sam Stone" and the lonely elder's lament "Hello In There," and thought about how they'd choked me up so often. I considered the gospel prayer of "Angel From Montgomery" and the patriarch's poem "Summer's End." But it turned out I didn't want to hear any of those, not right away. I wanted to hear "Sweet Revenge."

"Sweet Revenge" is, on the surface, pretty ridiculous. It's the title track from Prine's third album, the one with the cover portrait of him with his feet on the upholstery in a convertible he bought with the money from his first two. The song's a rocking account of newfound success that immediately detours toward hilarity. It conveys cockeyed optimism with a smear of darkness dirtying the frame. "I got kicked off Noah's ark," Prine sings like some shaggy Don Quixote. "There were two of everything but one of me." The wisecracks keep coming as the band choogles behind him and Cissy Houston adds some gospel harmonies. The narrator cozies up to an English teacher on a plane who doesn't like his jokes about red balloons, hears his own songs on the radio, and keeps things weird. "The white meat is on the run and the dark meat is far too done," Prine croaks, whatever that means. It doesn't matter. What it means is that life makes no obvious sense, but people can make stories from the random-seeming joy and pain it offers, and share them with each other, and do a lot more than muddle through.

Prine's songs claimed sweet revenge by making room for the wide range of emotions that careen through people as they stumble and dance through life. Those beloved ballads, weepers that showed his affinity for classic country tropes, included lines that made the mixed-up humanity of their subjects perfectly clear. The poeticism in "Angel From Montgomery" gains power because the lonely wife narrating is also so relatably peevish: she longs for divine intervention, but when she complains of her husband, "How the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have nothing to say," she's as headachy and unable to rise above things as anyone. Even "Sam Stone," to many a perfect story song with the arc of a Greek tragedy, revolves around an image that's almost sweet in its childlike fancifulness: "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes." And then comes the anti-prayer, recognizable to anyone who's felt hope cut to the bone: "And Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose." I suppose. John Prine captured people in those moments of supposing when life gets really small and almost impossible, but then another thought occurs. A laugh, or a dignified response, or even a sense of blessing.

No song captures Prine's unpretentious magnanimity better, as I hear it, than his 1995 epic "Lake Marie." It's a hymn that's also a tale as tall as they come. A palimpsest of tales, in fact, from Native American myth to true crime (its bucolic setting causes Prine's narrator to recall several unsolved murders he heard about as a youth) to an intimate account of a spiraling romance. One layer of the song laps across the surface of another like the waters of its titular Wisconsin lake – a scrawny lake, in pure Prine fashion, beautiful mostly because that's how a couple on the verge of disaster saw it one memorable day. As the stories wash ashore and get tangled in each other, the song's key line — "We were standing by peaceful waters" — reveals itself as both a bitter irony and the narrator's route to redemption. "All the love we shared between her and me was slammed, slammed up against the banks of Old Lake Marie," Prine moans, a man making poetry of the worst situation, because that's what you do to survive it.

Prine maintained hope in the power of imagination throughout his songwriting career, right up to the songs on Tree of Forgiveness, his 18 th and final studio album. He still spoke in the voice of the regular Joe and Jane, and he continued to dream, irreverently. He lamented our time as, possibly, an end time, but he still believed in the solace of looking within. The album's highlight is a classic Prine shaggy-dog story, "The Lonesome Friends of Science," and it's an ideal send-off for our most grounded dreamer. "The lonesome friends of science say, 'The world will end most any day,'" Prine intones in a voice bent out of shape by time and hardship, but still somehow luminous.

Well, if it does, then that's okay
'Cause I don't live here anyway
I live down deep inside my head
long ago I made my bed
I get my mail in Tennessee
My wife, my dog, and my family

John Prine no longer gets his mail in Tennessee, and that's a loss that will continue to hurt. But he gave us the gift of his head, and his heart, and we can all still visit there, as long as we have our own, and rejuvenate.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.