I have never been a fan of country music. I’m just not wired for it. Much like how some people aren’t wired for jazz, David Lynch, or TLC shows. And even though I may not be down with outlaw country or Little People, Big World, I do appreciate a great songwriter. Guys like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Dwight Yoakam could transcend the whole country music genre and write a song that was appealing to both country boys and awkward, idiosyncratic Midwestern boys.
But John Prine was different to my ears. Sure he had a twang to his voice and could fingerpick with the best of ’em, but John Prine wrote simple songs about simple folks. He wrote from a Midwestern perspective. He wasn’t a country boy(he grew up in Illinois and came up in the Chicago folk scene), but his outlook was of an indifference to one’s flaws. He saw the flaws in human nature as just another aspect of us; like the color of our hair or our shoe size. His songs were never judgements on our lesser behaviors, they were spotlights on the human condition from the perspective of the brokenhearted and folks looking for something better. He was basically Kurt Vonnegut in folk song form.
So it goes.
He was closer to Dylan and Springsteen than the Merles and Hanks of the 70s country scene. His songs were little novels and much too smart than the beer drinkin’ an Hell raisin’ of the country radio ilk. You’re not going to find songs like “Sam Stone”, “Illegal Smile”, “Please Don’t Bury Me”, and “Everything’s Cool” on top 40 radio. They were too smart and too personal for such a large, beer-soaked stage. At 23-years old Prine wrote “Hello In There”, a poignant song about growing old and falling into dementia.
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
This list of artists influenced, inspired, and just touched deeply by the music of John Prine is long and far too deep for me to mention here. I’ll say that John Prine was the unsung hero of the under the radar music geniuses. He was as much a philosopher of human nature as he was a singer/songwriter. He connected to the human condition on such a deep, empathetic level; even more so than his contemporaries. Dylan was a poet, and Springsteen was a romantic. John Prine was you and me. John Prine was a humanist with an acoustic guitar, singing songs about quiet moments and brokenhearted days; redemptive nights and brighter perspectives once age brought wisdom.
RIP John Prine.