In Person And On Stage, John Prine’s Songwriting Is Divine Intervention

John Kure

The lonesome friends of science say / the world will end most any day / well if it does, then that’s okay / ‘Cause I don’t live here anyway. — “The Lonesome Friends Of Science

I don’t believe in God anymore, but I still believe in John Prine.

Like most eternal truths, I discovered Prine by accident, and the scenario where I did so is practically out of a song he’d write. On a trip to Alabama, taken on a whim during an ill-advised stint in grad school back in 2011, I caught him on a double bill featuring Emmylou Harris, who was legend enough to get me shelling out for a ticket without knowledge of the other headliner. Harris played with her own spectacular blue Kentucky ease, but it didn’t matter, by the time I left Birmingham that night Prine had effortlessly eclipsed any other reason for the trip. It seemed like discovering him was fate, but ultimately it proved to be something better — sheer, random chance in an uncaring universe.

Back then, an aspiring songwriter, I assumed any successful artist was better than me by virtue of their art. But the best thing about discovering Prine’s oeuvre during that lonely, isolated period of my largely unsuccessful post-grad studies was his knack for reveling in his own worst instincts — or maybe just admitting that he wants to. Strangely enough, those instincts ended up sounding smarter and smarter to me as time went on: Blow up your TV, throw away your paper…. try to find Jesus, on your own.

There’s a trace of the divine in a writer who never flinches away from his own grinning, crooked humanity and the bitterness that so often readily accompanies it. “I hate graveyards and old pawn shops / for they always bring me tears,” he sings on the stunning early-career hit “Souvenirs,” adding: “I can’t forgive the way they robbed me / of my childhood souvenirs.” This is not a sentimental collector fending off death by fetishizing the past, but a grieving human, mourning the loss of precious memories. Novelties are a pit stop for those who can’t let go of time; Prine turns a trinket into a totem by acknowledging what it forever lacks — the record of our interior lives. Luckily for us, that’s exactly what his songwriting provides.

On his latest album, this year’s The Tree Of Forgiveness, John sings of how much he wants to get to heaven… so he can smoke a cigarette again. He’s faced and survived two bouts with cancer; his idea of heaven is still a cigarette. This is emblematic of the reason he’s such a beloved songwriter, because he refuses to stop short at an easy chorus, necessarily following it down to its harrowing conclusion, but he won’t wallow in despair, either. In heaven, his cigarette is a joyous affair, free of any gruesome side effects, the smoke stretches on for nine miles.