As we mourn the loss of thousands to the coronavirus, we must also find ways to celebrate these lives taken too soon.
This is easy with John Prine, the great American songwriter who died of virus complications on Tuesday. He was 73.
Prine is among a growing number of beloved artists lost around the world during the pandemic, each compounding the misery of their fans and adding to the poignant soundtrack of the quarantine.
Dubbed the Mark Twain of American songwriting by Rolling Stone magazine, Prine wrote songs full of wisdom and humor that celebrate the richness — and poorness — of life.
Prine was a fine musician and a masterful storyteller. He shared lasting insights into living, loving and dying without pretense or political correctness. He was a working-class Bob Dylan, a guitar-playing Raymond Carver, a modern Hank Williams.
After high school, Prine delivered mail in the Chicago area. He was drafted and served during the Vietnam War, then delivered more mail, observing people and composing songs along the way.
Prine eventually found the courage, after a few beers, to play at a Chicago folk-music club. He was discovered by chance by film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote about the “singing mailman.”
“He starts slow,” Ebert wrote. “But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Prine was later discovered by Kris Kristofferson, who introduced him to the upper echelon of the early 1970s music scene, launching his career. While he never became a superstar, Prine developed a devoted following and deep respect in the industry. A resurgence in the 2000s introduced his songwriting to a new generation of fans.
“The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person,” singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone for a 2017 profile.
That magic endures.
Prine’s political songs — lamenting the human cost of failed war and drug abuse in “Sam Stone,” for instance — and his wickedly funny skewering of hypocrites and false patriots, remain bracing and relevant.
During a time of social distancing and quarantines, the rich humanity and sense of closeness that Prine’s songs provide are especially welcome.
To paraphrase his hit “Spanish Pipe Dream,” we are all ready to blow up the TV, go to the country and eat a lot of peaches.
But this editorial board would prefer you don’t also throw away the paper, as Prine suggests — at least not until you’ve read it.
Thank you, John Prine. May you rest in peace.