NASHVILLE — Nine songs into his sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium here on Oct. 5, John Prine stopped singing long enough to give some context for a song he wrote 50 years ago, during the height of the Vietnam War. “I wrote this next one as a protest song,” he said. “It was 1968, and at the time we had a real jerk in the White House.” He paused before voicing what I was already thinking: “What a coincidence.”
Then he kicked off the famous antiwar anthem from his 1971 debut album, “John Prine”:
But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
In fact, that first record is full of protest songs, if you open up the definition of “protest song” to include empathetic ballads of lost souls, dreamers abandoned by the American dream. “Sam Stone” first carried the much more pointed title of “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues.” With either title, though, the song is an elegy, the story of an injured soldier who leaves Vietnam with a morphine addiction, coming home “with a purple heart and a monkey on his back.” “Angel from Montgomery” is a ballad in the voice of an old woman whose options have always been limited. “Hello in There” tells the story of two lonely elders who lost a son in Korea — “I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.”
Most haunting of all is “Paradise,” a song named for the town in Western Kentucky where Mr. Prine’s parents were born. It tells of a rural childhood idyll that ends because:
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
The damage is done, the song says; paradise has been razed, and there’s nothing we can do about it now except to remember. But Mr. Prine’s true story of Paradise, Ky., also spells out just what we have to lose in this gorgeous green world, and how permanent those losses are. Today, just as in 1971, the song reminds us of what happens when a gentle existence that lies easy on the land is destroyed for the profit of developers and corporations.
The difference between the way “Paradise” resonated with listeners in 1971 and the way we hear it now is that back then we didn’t know what coal was doing to the planet itself. According to a new report from a United Nations panel of climate experts, the very industry that destroyed Paradise, Ky., is the one we must eliminate today or we will have no chance of curbing greenhouse gasses in time to prevent global catastrophe. It also happens to be the industry Donald Trump vows to bring back. “We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” he said in this year’s State of the Union address.
Mr. Prine’s two-night residence at the Ryman — known here in Nashville as the mother church of country music — was part of his tour for the release of “The Tree of Forgiveness,” the first record of original music he has made in 13 years. This album, his 19th studio recording, is classic John Prine: equally sweet and irreverent, written from a worldview where the heartbreaking and the ludicrous walk hand-in-hand.
No song on the new record is an overt protest song in the vein of “Sam Stone” or “Paradise,” but the album’s spare production echoes the powerful simplicity of Mr. Prine’s first record, and the animating spirit of that early music is threaded throughout the new work, too. There are rollicking songs about knocking on a screen door in summertime or getting to heaven and smoking “a cigarette that’s nine miles long,” yes, but the one who’s knocking on the screen door is a lonely drifter, and the one who’s going to heaven is a songwriter who gave up smoking when he got throat cancer.
And tucked among these cheerful sad songs, too, are signs of the oracular John Prine, a prophet with his finger on the pulse of his times and his eyes turned always toward the world beyond. “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” for example, predicts the end of the world; “Caravan of Fools” links wealth with idiocy; the music video for “Summer’s End” turns a haunting but elliptical song about randomness and failed dreams into a ballad for loved ones lost to the opioid epidemic. (The song is dedicated to Max Barry, the son of Nashville’s former mayor, who died in the summer of 2017 of a drug overdose.)
From 1971 right through to today, John Prine has been a storyteller, not just between songs in a concert but within the songs themselves, and that’s what gives them such power. His primary mode of persuasion is the story, just as the primary mode of persuasion for the biblical Jesus is the parable. A parable has many advantages over a screed or a sermon (or, it must be said, an op-ed column). A parable trusts the story to do the work of conversion, and it trusts its listeners to do the work of interpretation. A parable resists polarities: People listening to a story can’t immediately know whether they belong among the speaker’s “us” or the speaker’s “them.”
The mother church of country music, where the seats are scratched-up pews and the windows are stained glass, is the place where the new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.
At the Ryman on Oct. 5, the night when Mitch McConnell announced he had the votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the songwriter who once called the United States on its dirty little war in Vietnam made an allusion to the controversy when he introduced “Angel From Montgomery.” Dedicating the song to all the women in the audience, he said, “It’s a sad, sad day when women can’t be believed.” This country has never needed John Prine more.