John Prine

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John Prine

I was sitting in one of those posture destroying school chairs in seventh grade when I first heard him. It was 1978. For some odd reason school administrative district number 35 offered a few elective class choices every Friday. I suppose the hippies were teaching by then and we were offered up a bit of freedom. The jocks played basketball. The homey types took some kind of cooking class as I remember. I was already a rock and roll music obsessed scarecrow of a kid at six feet and weighing in as a flyweight at 140 pounds (if I was wearing my “drone boots” – standard issue thick soled brown suede leather all the pot smokers wore). That particular year one of the elective classes was “Deciphering Rock Lyrics”. It was a miraculous offering as it kept me from basketball or a stove top, both of which for; I had the grace of a ball pean hammer.

The class wasn’t exactly taught as much as guided by a teacher named Tom Cowland. He was an excellent teacher, a kind man, a big guy with a bit of a temper. He gave foolishness no quarter. He was fun, but not foolish. Seventh grade was probably not his ideal grade placement now that I think of it. This particular day Mr. Cowland handed out a mimeograph sheet of a song called Sam Stone by John Prine. I’d not heard of Prine. I was a Springsteen and Tom Petty fan by then so I had just started the migration from Rock bands to songwriters but I wasn’t quite there yet. When the needle hit the groove I was perplexed. We all (well not everyone – a few of them were probably stoned) followed along with our lyric sheets as the song played out. When the song was over Mr Cowland lifted the needle and looked around at us. There was a glint of something in his eyes that I could not place at the time. Now I recognize that look. It was the acknowledgement of the genius we’d just listed too, perhaps just the rumor of a tear and the pride one feels when you expose someone to something undeniable. You all know that feeling. “Listen to this…”

He went on to walk us through the lyric line by line with great patience – we were twelve years old and lived in Maine for Christ’s sake. What experience did we have to put the lyric into any context? We talked about this single song for forty-five minutes; the metaphors, the reporter-like quality, the narrative, a bit of Vietnam war history and the casual quality of the word choices. I remember clearly Mr. Cowland presented the song the awe and respect.

I wasn’t buying the production. I couldn’t hear it. The vocal was pinched and flat. It wasn’t Rock. But something else happened in those forty-five-minutes. It was the first time I recognized poetry and literature in a song. I don’t mean I’d never heard a great narrative. Sure, I’d heard great story songs before but Sam Stone was next level. The song was a piece of art. I had the exact same feeling as an adult when I saw Girl With A Pearl Earring in a museum in The Hague. I was breathless and profoundly moved. I remember I kept the mimeograph paper of the lyric to read over and over.
It took me time to get to John Prine the performer. I wasn’t ready that day. I hadn’t walked through the door of maturity that allows you to not define yourself by the things you embrace. I once had a great conversation with the wonderful writer Peter Cooper about the production on Prine’s early work. I explained to him that while I loved the songs and John was clearly brilliant and one of a kind, I still struggled with the production on the early recordings. I owned them and listened to them but for me, all the instruments were haze covering the thing I wanted to see inside. It was like looking at Girl With A Pearl Earring through Saran Wrap. I could see it there but I wanted to be closer. I wanted the marrow.

Peter told me about the album Souvenirs, re-recorded and stripped to the bone versions of many of Prine’s better known songs from 2000. I bought a copy and there it was; everything I’d ever wanted from a John Prine album. Prine had gone through throat surgery by the time Souvenirs was recorded; the gravel and and aural scarring in his voice gifted the songs with even more gravitas. It remains one of my very favorite albums – period.

A few years ago, my former duo partner Amanda Shires started opening shows for John and sitting in on a few songs in his set as well. They had a show scheduled at a lovely theatre in Chattanooga TN. I told her I was considering driving down and Amanda graciously invited me to be her guest, hang out backstage, and watch from the stage or a seat she procured for me. So, I went. Though our duo ended a long ago we’ve remained friends and I adore her, her songs and her quirky charm. Amanda, a few of her friends and I hung out backstage until the show. I have, of course, been backstage to a slew of shows in the past – both big and small. There is an etiquette to the backstage hang that is subtle. It comes from the top down. Some performers are superstitious. Some are focused. Some are nervous. Some are grouchy and want no folderol or interruption. You have to pick up on the vibe and ride in the backseat.

I’ve never seen such a relaxed backstage scene as Prine’s. I ran into my friend Dave Jacques, who had played with Prine for many years (Dave played on a few of my albums and I always pried as many Prine stories as I dared from him) and is a very funny and sardonic guy. His lovely wife Lemesa was there with their children. People wandered about freely. There was absolutely no tension whatsoever. We could have been at a laundromat for the lack of stress.

Like I said, the vibe comes from the top down. This was John Prine’s way. It was another revelation. He seemed to approach his job like a factory worker. A few jokes, hugs, a lot of smiles. John wandered around a bit himself and was incredibly gracious to everyone he encountered; always a smile for everyone and his undivided attention to a few fans who made their way back without passes. Amanda made a great foil for John onstage and the show was phenomenal in its relaxed and its impossibly loose confidence.

When Prine first walked out onstage the audience immediately started hurling applause and a very long string of requests. John casually strolled up the microphone and mumbled, “Yeah, I know all of those songs.” It was one of the most charming things I’ve ever seen at a show. He talked to the audience like he was in his living room and I suppose in a way he was. The adoration in the room was a little different than any show I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the kind of awe one usually feels coming from the audience. It was absolute love.

I saw Dylan play a great show in Nashville many years ago. I was awestruck. All I could think of was “that’s Bob Dylan and for whatever reason he’s decided to give us a great show tonight. It’s Bob…Dylan.” I was moved by Dylan’s show but it seemed to come from a place that was more about me, my past, my love for the songs and his own mastery. The audience revered Dylan. You could feel it. But people adored John Prine. It was almost as though every round of applause was a thank you card.

When Prine played “Sam Stone” I was overcome and the tears came in buckets; a grown man crying over a song he’d heard hundreds of times. That’s the power of a great song. You might get immune to a song for a while, you might outgrow a song. But a great song always retains its power and can hit you with a left hook at will.

After the show, I saw John in a little room eating what looked like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Perfect. John Prine wrote wheelbarrows of great songs. I think John would like that I just used the word wheelbarrow. I’m not sure, but wheelbarrow seems like the kind of word John loved to throw at you with a wink. I wish I still had that mimeograph lyric of Sam Stone. Thanks Tom Cowland. Thanks John Prine.
–Rod Picott

Sam Stone came home,
To the wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knees.
But the morhpine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a purple heart and a monkey on his back.
There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
Sam Stone’s welcome home
Didn’t last too long.
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And soon he took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.
And the gold roared through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains,
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,
While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes…
There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon,
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.
Well, he played his last request,
While the room smelled just like death,
With an overdose hovering in the air.
But life had lost it’s fun,
There was nothing to be done,
But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill,
For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.
There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.

5 thoughts on “John Prine

  1. Rod Picott,
    You have inspired me to delve into Prine’s music even more! Thank you for sharing your stories! You are a lovely writer!

    1. this is all so true. the only other artist I saw where the love was so palpable was the “Ramble at the Ryman” with Levon Helm. And so glad I found “Souvenirs” as well. I just had to re-order because I’m terrible with taking care of CDs. Take care, Rod- love to your family with the recent passing of your Mom. Jay and Leanna in B’ham.

    2. I agree, my Dad told me two weeks ago to listen to “hello in there” and that inspired me, too. Pretty special guy to have touched so many other artists. Great article.

  2. I’ve been a fan and collector of John Prine’s music since 1975 when I read an article about him in Playboy. At the time I never read any Vietnam protest messages in his songs like The Great Compromise. I related it more to my own marital situation. In Canada a lot of us were in contempt of the draft dodgers coming here. But that’s all water under the bridge. The passing of John Prine has affected me than any other celebrity at this time.

  3. Rod, thanks for writing about John this way. It was exactly as his shows felt. Like love. Like a brotherhood. I’m glad that my most memorable show of his was at an elegant theatre in Philadelphia during the short time I lived there. He was one of the bright spots in a city of not-so-much ‘brotherly love’. Funny enough, that was one of my more fun Dylan shows during that phase of life (and he was not always the friendliest performer).
    I also feel lucky to have met you in the (was it the new Cambria hotel in Nashville?) just over a year and some ago before Xmas 2018. A recommendation to the Station Inn added to the warmth of that eve.
    Deepest sympathies again on the passing of your sweet Mom. Xo

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