“Everything happened so fast for me.” Songwriter John Prine said this in one of many late-life interviews, when the glow of sunset warmed his disfigured grin, itself a map of battles fought and deep, wry knowledge. He had survived throat cancer and lung cancer to produce an album called “The Tree of Forgiveness.” But whatever there was to forgive, it paled beside what there was to celebrate.
For Prine, that started with the blinding flash at the beginning of his career. In 1970, he was a working-class guy, fresh from the Army and lugging the mail in Maywood, Ill. He wrote songs in his head as he walked, and sang them for free at open mic night at a folk club in Chicago. Word got around. Open mic night turned into a regular gig. And there he was on a Friday night in October when a young movie critic named Roger Ebert walked in for a drink and walked out with a rave review.
“Things just got better from then on,” Prine once told an interviewer. Within a year of that first review, Prine had dazzled the crown prince of Nashville songwriters, Kris Kristofferson, and caught the ear of the king himself, Bob Dylan, who stirred from his reclusion to back up Prine on harmonica. Prine had hit-machine Paul Anka for a manager and a first-album deal with Atlantic Records. That first record landed, not on the charts, but in the Americana music history books: an instant classic, the rare debut that, in the words of “Rolling Stone,” feels “like a greatest-hits compilation.”
“Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two hundred and twenty,” Kristofferson wrote in the liner notes. There was a lot of truth in that. Prine wrote as if he had already lived many lives in many souls. “I am an old woman, named after my mother,” he declared in “Angel From Montgomery.” “Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more,” said one half of a lonely old couple in “Hello in There.” And in “Sam Stone,” he channeled both the morphine-addicted war veteran of the title and Stone’s neglected kids, seeing all and missing nothing: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where the money goes.”
That was probably Prine’s most famous line. Indeed, the hole in Daddy’s arm was such an arresting image, so plainly stated, that Prine became a voice of the anti-Vietnam movement without really trying. It was another one of those things that happened so fast.
Some artists are searingly witty; their cleverness electrifies; they hit just the right word and elicit a gasp or a laugh or both. Some artists are achingly sincere; they see and feel more than the rest of us and follow their revelations with utter faithfulness. Prine was both at the same time — among the rarest of artistic aptitudes. The line about Daddy’s arm was both joltingly clever and utterly sincere. Prine held these competing values in equipoise throughout his long career, and the perfect balance was so powerful that of course the world discovered him quickly. Such a genial, humane genius is difficult to miss.
His own audiences were bigger at the end than they had ever been. Prine sold out Radio City Music Hall. He sang duets with Stephen Colbert. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys to go with his two earlier Grammy Awards. “The Tree of Forgiveness” reached No. 5 on the Billboard album charts.
“I just John-Prined the song up,” he told Gross of another gem, called “Boundless Love.” Some lyrics he had worked on years earlier were sitting in his files, needing something. Something witty, yet sincere. He wrote: “Sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine. / It bounces around til my soul comes clean. / And when I’m clean and hung out to dry, / I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry.”
Or cry until we laugh. Or laugh and cry simultaneously. That was the essence of John-Prining it up. There will be a lot of both, the laughing and the crying, among the many fans of John Prine, in celebrating and mourning a rare poet of American song.