Editorial: Songwriting master dies from COVID-19

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 16, 2020

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On Tuesday, April 7, I was doing what I normally do during this coronavirus quarantine — sitting on my patio, enjoying a cold one, smelling the wisteria blooms, admiring all the flowers and watching the birds flit around.

And I was listening to music. John Prine, to be exact. And then I listened to a recent interview of Prine. I’ve always been a fan, listening to his music since the mid-1970s. He’s the greatest songwriter who ever lived.

The next morning, I learned that John Prine had died on that Tuesday due to complications from the coronavirus.

Sure, it made me sad. But it was also uplifting, because I know that his music will live on forever. And I know that on his last recording, he wrote a song “When I Get to Heaven:”

“When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?

And 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

‘Cause this old man, is coming to town.”

The interview I watched that Tuesday included Prine and Sturgill Simpson, who admitted early on that he didn’t belong beside Prine swapping stories. Prine’s were too good.

Prine talked about visiting his grandparents in a nursing home at age 14. He noticed many of the residents had long, sad faces — and no visitors.

A few years later, he penned the song, “Hello In There,” which includes the refrain:

“You know that old trees just grow stronger.

And old rivers grow wilder every day.

But old people just grow lonesome.

Waiting for someone to say, Hello in there. Hello.”

Pretty good insight into the human condition by a 14-year-old, right?

John Prine was a mailman outside of Chicago, and wrote songs while walking along his route. He became friends with fellow musician Steve Goodman, who later died of cancer at a young age. Goodman talked Prine into singing his songs at an open mic night at a local club. On the first night, Prine said, he finished the first song, and the 15 or so people in the crowd didn’t move. They didn’t speak, just sat there with their mouths open. He was ready to walk off the stage when one person stood and began clapping, and then all 15 stood and gave him a standing ovation. And this was after his first song ever performed in public. That song? “Hello in There.”

The owner of the club hired Prine on the spot for a regular gig.

Soon after, Goodman had opened a show for Kris Kristofferson in Chicago, and insisted the star go to hear his friend John Prine. When Goodman, Kristofferson, Paul Anka and someone else made it to the club Prine was playing, it had closed. But they lined up four chairs in front of the stage, and Prine performed his show one more time. When he finished, Kristofferson told him to play all those songs again, and anything else he had written. Kristofferson was hooked, and shared Prine’s music.

Soon after, Prine and Goodman went to New York and walked in on a Kristofferson show. He invited them to a “party” at Carly Simon’s apartment. Bob Dylan was there. Before the night was over, Dylan was singing Prine’s songs. And that was Prine’s first night in New York. A few nights later, Prine was performing there and Dylan was his guest on harmonica. When he introduced Bob Dylan as his backup, folks in the crowd didn’t believe him.

He was a mailman when Reader’s Digest put an American flag with gum on the back in every issue. Of course, it led to a song, which includes the line,:

“Your flag decal won’t get you, into heaven any more.

We’re already overcrowded, by your dirty little wars.”

He wrote “Angel from Montgomery,” made more famous by Bonnie Raitt, with the line: “How the hell can a person, go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say.”

He was in the movie “Daddy and Them” with Billy Bob Thornton and Andy Griffith, and Billy Bob asked him to write a song about the movie. The movie was a total flop (“It went straight to Blockbuster,” Prine said), but the song, ‘In Spite of Ourselves,” lives on.

I could go on and on with quotes from Prine songs. But for now, take a listen to his music.

Mike Barnhardt is editor of the Davie County Enterprise-Record.