‘He Could Dignify the Human Condition Like Nobody Else’: Remembering John Prine

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American songwriter and two time Grammy winner John Prine passed away at the age of 73 on April 9, 2020 after contracting COVID-19, a virus that, at the time, had just newly shut down the world as we knew it in a matter of weeks. Shortly afterwards, Ohio University School of Interdisciplinary Arts PhD candidate and instructor Angela Opell Adkins gave her students a gift, deceptively presented as one of their first virtual assignments.

“I told them ‘this is what you’re going to do: you’re going to listen to John Prine’s first record, and I want you to really get in there and hear these songs,” said Adkins, whose academic work focuses on a critical re-examination of country music. “Their response was great. The moment you first hear John Prine, if you’re going to love it, you’ll know right away. It can be kind of like panning for gold and finally finding a nugget.”

A little over a year later, WOUB-TV will broadcast Austin City Limits: John Prine, Saturday, May 1 at 10 p.m. ET. The program is an encore presentation featuring performances of songs from throughout Prine’s sprawling 51 year career, from the 1971 self-titled debut Adkins assigned her students, all the way to his 2018 album Tree of Forgiveness.

John Prine

Adkins was given the gift of John Prine by her friend, Carly, when they were high schoolers growing up in Eastern Kentucky, driving around in a Ford Bronco smoking Marlboro reds and singing Prine’s “Spanish Pipe Dream” after school, but before band practice.

“The music you hear when you’re a teenager really sticks with you. And for me that’s John Prine, he was introduced to me in a very memorable way and once I heard him, I couldn’t get enough,” Adkins said.

Julian Runyon, a member of Athens’ Infinite Improbability Drive and no stars, was introduced to John Prine by way of osmosis: Prine is his father’s favorite musician.

“My dad always had two copies of the John Prine Anthology, one that we kept to listen to, and another one he would hand out to people, to spread the word,” said Runyon, who started doing pretty much the same thing in Athens after moving here. “I’d find friends that didn’t know John Prine, but were maybe into music in a similar vein, and I’d give them a few recommendations. And then the next time I ran into them, they’d be full on John Prine heads.”

All of Runyon’s family loves Prine, and after the rough year that was 2020, Runyon found himself at home at Thanksgiving with his parents and 92-year-old grandfather.

“My mom and dad and I, we went into the kitchen after the meal and just started tossing around John Prine songs, and we got to “Please Don’t Bury Me,” and my grandpa, he was really taken with it – he said he wants us to play it at his funeral, and he brings it up every time we see him,” said Runyon, adding that his grandfather is not only spry – he also started skydiving, but only after he turned 80.

Brian Koscho, a Ohio University Scripps College of Communication MFA student said Prine occupies a similarly elemental place in his memory.

“It’s hard to remember before I knew about his music. All I can remember about that time is that, as someone who has always been a music obsessor, he was one of those people I was supposed to listen to,” said Koscho. “As someone whose sort of dominant thing in my life has always been listening to all sorts of music and trying to discover new music – Prine was just in that pantheon of songwriters that everyone loved. Even punk rockers I knew loved John Prine, he’s just someone who crossed a lot of boundaries.”

In combining lyricism that could bring one to tears (either from laughter or a warm sense of melancholy poignancy, and sometimes both in the same song) with effective, often relatively simple instrumentation, Prine won over a strikingly wide variety of fans throughout his career. Simultaneously, no amount of clever wordplay could win over the country western music industry in the early ‘70s, which rejected Prine outright — regardless of the fact that it would be difficult to describe Prine’s music without referencing the genre in some manner.

“Like a lot of things, when you’re talking about genres of American popular music, often you’re talking about either race or politics. When John Prine came out in 1971 on his first record singing “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” I think he locked himself out of the of the mainstream Nashville country music industry,” said Adkins. “In 1971, being anti-war was just politically a line in the sand. At that time, if you said something like that in your music you have sort of officially allied yourself to the long hairs.”

Although Prine was not accepted outright by mainstream country music, by 1981 he felt at home enough in Nashville to open his own record label there: Oh Boy! Records, which he started with Al Bunetta (his manager) and Dan Einstein (his friend).

“Even if we don’t think of John Prine as a country singer, his songwriting is very much in the tradition of country songs that tell a story – he kind of creates a tableau for us, a scene where we are kind of peering into someone’s life. There’s even something kind of voyeuristic about his songs,” said Adkins. “As a listener, we get all these really fine sensory details; like in “Angel From Montgomery,” you get to hear about flies and you’re hearing screen doors. But really what might make him unique are the characters that populate his songs. Usually they are lonely, down on their luck – or maybe they are in the doghouse. Like Sam Stone, he’s a really pathetic character, in the greatest sense of the word. John Prine could take these scenes of abject misery and turn them into these absolutely sublime moments that really dignify the human condition, in a way that nobody else could.”

WOUB Culture asked all of the John Prine super fans interviewed above to submit a few of their favorite Prine songs — a task they all said was very difficult — and their song suggestions are embedded into the Spotify playlist below.