On Coming to John Prine Late

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I was late to the Prine party. Very, VERY late. In my adult life, I’ve mainly enjoyed two kinds of music – sad and LOUD. Prine’s music was never loud, and the humor in his lyrics always threw me off. I didn’t know what to make it, so I quit. I mean, I knew it was good, but it didn’t “hit” me. Even though all my favorite artists revered the music and loved the man, I just couldn’t get into it. My last-ditch effort was his 2018 Austin City Limits appearance. Even this wasn’t a guarantee – I’d given this effort to other musicians that hadn’t hooked me, and I’d remained unhooked. Not this time. From his songs to his performances to his self-deprecation to, most of all, his overwhelming joy in being there, I was sold. Stunned, really. The honorary Kentuckian even ceded part of his time to Kentucky’s new favorite son, Tyler Childers. Who the hell does THAT? Someone of immense humility. Someone like John Prine.

The following spring, I saw that Mr. Prine had booked a date at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony in July, and I quickly made plans to attend. After an emergency surgery to prevent a stroke and the requisite postponement, the concert finally took place on September 18, the night after Jason Isbell’s show. What a week. And what a night. We all knew, especially after this latest health scare, how fortunate we were to be there, and each song, old and new, was greeted more enthusiastically than the last. That’s what a Prine show is – an open party where all are welcome. He still had that ever-present impish twinkle in his eye. He brought out openers I’m With Her to sing with him, affectionately calling them “these girls.” And, at the end, he shamble-danced off the greatest outdoor stage in the world like only a former mailman who’d twice beaten back cancer possibly could.

Losing Mr. Prine reminds me of when I discovered Kent Haruf after moving to Colorado, and shortly after he’d died. His writing style bears some similarity to Mr. Prine’s – spare, and slowly unfolding to reveal the layers of its characters slice by slice. I savored his six novels, dreading the end of the last, because I knew there’d be no more. It’s like that with John – as a relative newcomer to his music, I have much more to unpeel. He’s given me that gift. But, at some point, I will have heard it all, and that will be the saddest day, because there will be no more.

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