John Prine: A tribute

By Eddie Adelman | Apr 25, 2020

I don't generally mourn the deaths of famous people, no matter how great their talents or accomplishments. And the reason for that is simple: I never knew them personally, so there’s no deep emotional connection.

But every so often, the passing of someone I never met really hits home. It actually pierces the armor that surrounds my heart. That was the case with the recent death of the singer/songwriter, John Prine, attributed to complications of the coronavirus. And whenever I react this way, I always ask myself why.

I think the answer lies in a story told by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar during one of the primary debates (which now seems like a million years ago). She told the story of a man standing beside the railroad tracks as the train carrying Franklin Roosevelt's body passed through his town. A reporter asked the man if he knew FDR. And the man responded, “No. But he knew me.”

And I think the same could be said of me when I think of John Prine. Though we never met, somehow he seemed to know me.

Prine’s music came of age in an era of songwriting giants like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, whose music I adore. But truth be told, their music mostly stimulates my intellect.

John Prine’s music, however, touches me in a much deeper place. A place I didn’t even know existed. Call it the core. And I’m guessing by the outpouring of grief at his sudden death that I’m not alone regarding that connection. I’m just giving it voice.

I’ve dabbled a bit in writing, and I always saw my job as exposing the human condition in an entertaining manner. And to my way of thinking, no singer/songwriter of my generation did it any better than John Prine. It seems like every time I hear a Prine song I check off that box in my head that reads, “Yeah. Just like life.”

The stories in his songs are without rival. But it’s the characters. Characters so familiar that you can’t help but see yourself in them, warts and all. Characters like the lonely cashier and lonely Army private in “Donald and Lydia.” The melancholy woman in “Angel from Montgomery.” The drug-addicted Vietnam vet in “Sam Stone.” The isolated old man in “Hello in There.”

Such familiar and sympathetic souls.

But Prine was equally adept at tickling the funny bone. Songs like “Dear Abby,” “Illegal Smile” and now, ironically, “When I Get to Heaven” can’t help but make us laugh. Once again, we can see ourselves in those songs, and perhaps equally important, laugh at ourselves. And in these troubling times, is there a greater legacy? Or a greater gift?

It’s been said by some that John Prine was the modern day Shakespeare.

Comparing anyone to Shakespeare is fraught with danger. But I’ll go out on a limb and argue that both those writers understood where our secret cores reside, and somehow managed to find their way inside.

John Prine may be gone, but his songs live on with a timeless and universal feel that serves to remind us of our shared humanity — never more so than in the final verse of his masterpiece, “Hello in There.”

“So if you're walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes

Please don't just pass 'em by and stare

As if you didn't care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello’ ”

Yeah. Just like life.

Eddie Adelman is a writer who lives in Belfast

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Comments (1)
Posted by: John E Marshall | Apr 30, 2020 15:36

We're Not the Jet Set...a classic with a good social message



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