John Prine’s Generous Spirit Bridged Generations

My first John Prine show was an accident — I was going to see Emmylou Harris.

It just so happened, Emmylou and a singer I didn’t know were doing a doubleheader in Alabama during the week I was visiting, back in March of 2011, so we bought tickets and plotted the drive to Birmingham. I kept meaning to go on Spotify and learn more about the guy sharing the bill, but grad school is a busy time and I never got around to it. Which means that the first time I ever heard John Prine’s voice, it was live and in person, without a single hint of what I was about to experience: a flummoxing, mesmerizing performer whose presence would be swaggering if it wasn’t so gentle.

Hearing “Sam Stone” (“there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”) and “Spanish Pipedream” (“blow up your TV”) or “Souvenirs” for the first time in an half-full Alabama arena sounds like a scene out of a Prine song; encountering his storytelling was like meeting someone from my family I’d always heard about but never known. How is there so much familiarity in his work that everyone who hears it thinks it belongs only to them? What a feat. Returning home with what felt like a secret, I spent my daily long trail runs carefully listening to every single album he’d ever released, settling on 2010’s In Person & On Stage (Live) as the one that felt most like the show where I first encountered him.

And for a while, I lived happily in my own bubble, wearing grooves in his 2000 classic Souvenirs that I found on vinyl in some record shop, playing the 1971 self-titled album that started it all on loop on my laptop, reading up on how Roger Ebert discovered Prine back when he was just a mailman, and drawing connections to my own life, growing up the daughter of a garbage man. I used to try to mask my dad’s working-class job before finding Prine, but after, my old shame about it seemed to matter far less. Like Prine, my father was a songwriter and a guitar player, but unlike him, never got discovered. I bet there’s a whole lot more golden talent at open mics in towns around the world that never makes it past those tiny bars, even more that never makes it past the living rooms. One thing I always cherished about Prine’s music is the fact that we were lucky to have it all, and my own random introduction to it only deepened that sentiment further.

As I fell in love with John Prine, though, I began to see his influence everywhere. Not only did my idol, Bob Dylan, praise his songwriting skills, but the younger, up-and-coming artists I loved were citing his influence constantly. Foremost among them? An upstart country singer named Kacey Musgraves, who later shared that one of the first songs she wrote after moving to Nashville was “Burn One With John Prine.” Because sometimes life is good and right, the two performed it together in 2015. Well, that’s not quite right — Prine introduces the song with a story of Kacey trying to get stoned with him (unsuccessfully, despite the hints contained in “Illegal Smile,” another classic), and then sits there basking in it while she performs the song. “My idea of heaven, is to burn one with John Prine,” she sings, and later: “I bet that he would understand, just how I feel and who I am.” As the video itself illustrates, she was right.

Actually, Kacey wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and who was held and supported by John’s benevolent gaze and listening ear. His generous spirit bridged generations, as recent collaborations with Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Kacey herself, and Margo Price illustrate. But even before that, Prine was hellbent on working with and elevating his songwriting peers, particularly women. In 2016 he released For Better, Or Worse, a collection of duets with all-female country musicians and folk singers, many of whom don’t enjoy the longevity that their veteran male counterparts do late into their careers. Largely unsung legends like Iris Dement, Kathy Mattea, Lee Ann Womack, Susan Tedeschi, and Alison Krauss are all present on that release, along with newcomers like Holly Williams (Hank Williams’ granddaughter) and Morgane Stapleton (Chris Stapleton’s wife).

He toured frequently with Emmylou Harris, wrote a legendary hit song for Bonnie Raitt, and routinely, thoroughly, and lovingly praised his wife Fiona from the stage, everywhere he went. At a Grammys showcase hosted at the Troubadour in Los Angeles last year, artists as disparate as Dwight Yoakam, Ashley McBryde, Anderson East, Boz Scaggs, Mary Gauthier, and loads more gathered to pay tribute to his songs. Nearly every single one of them had a story about the way a song of his had helped them through, how the experiences he put into writing had made their own life more bearable, better, or richer. His songs were like friends when you didn’t have one, exquisite proof that someone else had been in the same kind of sad, weird, or lonesome situation, and found a way to make something useful, funny, or somber out of it.

Prine was beloved and respected within the songwriting community — young and old — because he treated his peers with the same open-hearted acceptance and tenderness that is present in so many of his songs: Everyone is interesting, anyone can surprise you, and no one is unworthy. In a world where those principles are so rarely upheld, much less lived out for decades, it’s a supreme loss that John Prine is no longer with us. But the seeds he’s sowed with his peers and the next generation are just beginning to grow, and the tree of forgiveness will outlast us all. As that last great album of his is embraced by those who are mourning this loss, it will be comforting to hear the covers of those songs that inevitably emerge. The next generation will keep singing Prine’s songs, because, when he was alive, he already made them ours.