The CNY Music Community Mourns John Prine

It has been two weeks since the world lost iconic singer-songwriter, John Prine. But his loss is still being felt around the music world. He was diagnosed with the coronavirus in mid-March and lost his battle on April 7. He was 73 years old. Following his death, musicians across the spectrum have expressed their sorrow and reverence for one of America’s best songwriters.

The Central New York music community was also struck by his loss. Over the past couple of weeks, several members of that community shared with 315 Music their feelings about what Prine’s music means to them.

A common theme mentioned by our contributors was the many ways a Prine song could be interpreted. Prine had the ability to make you laugh and cry within the same song, sometimes within the same line. That was the genius in his songwriting.

Born and raised in Chicago with family roots in Kentucky, Prine’s lyrics reflected both his city and country sensibilities, giving an everyman feel to his songs.

Contributors were asked to name a favorite Prine song and/or lyric and why it has meaning to them. To a Prine fan, choosing a favorite can be a daunting effort. Some would liken it to choosing their favorite child.

315 Music writer and photographer Brian Cornish reflected upon a later Prine composition “Summer’s End.” Here’s what he had to say:

“One of the most remarkable aspects of John Prine’s career is that even after fifty years of songwriting, some of his very best work appears on his final recording, The Tree of Forgiveness. The album, released in 2018, secured three Grammy nominations, one for Best Americana Album, and two for Best American Root Song. Those two songs were ‘Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,’ and ‘Summer’s End.’

‘Summer’s End’ is the type of Prine song with lyrics that are open to all types of interpretation and symbolism. That quality occurs in much of his work throughout his career. As a result, many Prine fans have had different favorite songs at different times, as listeners reinterpret things, or find that his songs hold more emotional weight at various times in their lives. This song, with themes of loss, what happens after that loss, and the hope for reclamation, is relatable in so many ways. It might be the loss of innocence, of youth, of time, of opportunity, of a relationship, or of life itself.

The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking.

I still love that picture of us walking.

Just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted,

Summer’s end came faster than we wanted.

John Prine – “Summer’s End”

The things we hold dear can indeed slip away faster than we wanted. In Prine’s case, the song is dedicated to Max, the son of a friend, who lost a struggle with addiction. The video interpretation depicts a grandfather and granddaughter dealing with the loss of their daughter and mother, respectively, and how they try to move forward in the aftermath of tragedy. The chorus states:

Just come on home.

Come on home.

No you don’t have to be alone.

Just come on home.

John Prine – “Summer’s End”

To this listener, Prine is acknowledging that we all seem to find room in our hearts for the things and people we miss, and would love nothing more than to reestablish them in our lives somehow.

Near the end of the video, Prine’s own son appears, to accompany him. You can’t help but think that Prine, who beat cancer twice, had reflected on his own mortality, and the things that he himself holds dearest.”

Syracuse-area singer-songwriter Jess Novak was also deeply saddened by Prine’s passing. Perhaps Prine’s signature song is “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Bonnie Raitt covered in 1974. Novak talks about the meaning behind this song for her:

“‘Angel from Montgomery’ was one of the very first songs I learned and performed and I felt an immediate connection to it. Prine was a master at writing lyrics so specific, and yet so open to interpretation, that anyone could connect with them in a way that feels so deeply personal.

“Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”

John Prine – “Angel From Montgomery”

This will always be one of my very favorite lyrics (of all songs, of all time) and it’s a line that’s gotten me through more than a few difficult times. It’s also become a benchmark for me when I write songs. Am I writing something that walks that line between something people can relate to from a distance, but also experience in a way that feels like they could have written it? If I’m coming anywhere close to that, I know I’m on the right track. I’m so grateful John Prine shared his gift with the world because I know it’s changed mine.”

Matt Moore, singer-songwriter and guitarist for Rome newgrass band Pocket Change first discovered Prine’s music when he was living in Moab, Utah in the mid-’90s. While he doesn’t particularly have a favorite song or lyric. He mentions a few of his favorites here:

“I’ve always liked storytellers in music like Harry Chapin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. I moved to Moab, Utah in ’95 and started hearing this unique, sly, sad and funny guy with a rough voice on the local public radio station KZMU. It was John Prine.

I fell in love with songs like ‘Spanish Pipedream,’ ‘Illegal Smile,’ ‘Paradise’ and others. As I learned how to play guitar and write songs of my own, I was really impressed with John’s ability to write songs outside of himself and about other people’s struggles and joys. I mean, it takes a real man to write a song like ‘Angel From Montgomery’ or ‘Unwed Fathers.’ 

I’m not big on favorite songs, but my favorite song to play has always been ‘Paradise.’ Lyrically it’s just such an intense song about memories and loss.   My favorite lyrics might be from ‘Sam Stone,’ a song about a soldier coming back from war addicted to morphine. ‘Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon. Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.’  I can totally picture that chair. I can smell the room.”

Steven T. Winston, a singer-songwriter and bassist for Syracuse band Los Blancos has a love for Prine’s music that runs deep. This love has led him to put together two John Prine tribute shows featuring an all-star cast of area musicians. The fist took place at the Westcott Theater in 2013 and the second was in 2018 at the Nelson Odeon.

“A friend played me ‘Rocky Mountain Time’ during the summer of ‘83, just out of high school before moving to Syracuse. I had a long-distance girlfriend in those days and was putting a lot of miles on the highway alone. I loved the tune, so when I saw Diamonds in the Rough in a truck stop tape rack, I had to buy it.

I let it flip in the deck for the next four hours straight, and that day changed my life. To me, that album became one song, and the chorus was a three-second pause. I bought everything as money allowed as fast as I could after that, finding John Prine and Common Sense in short order.

I already played bass and a bit of guitar, but it was John’s music that made me want to write songs. His ability to craft such deep stories and characters with such simple words is pure musical magic. He will remain an American treasure, and people will be singing his songs for another century.”

Mike Powell picked up a guitar because of John Prine. The CNY singer-songwriter will occasionally play a Prine cover in live performances and has done a Prine tribute during this period of isolation caused by the coronavirus. You can listen to the audio from that performance via Soundcloud courtesy of Powell archivist Chris Fisher. It’s a deeply personal tribute that lends depth to Powell’s admiration for the musician.

Powell had this to say about John Prine:

“I never met John Prine but he sure as hell made me feel like we grew up together. He held a natural magic behind his eyes. His songs always had a smirk but it was how he managed to hide a tear in there somewhere that always cut through me. He showed me what I wanted to be…he showed me that being yourself was as cool as you can get.

I was alone in my room at 13 years old laying on a plaid bedspread with my eyes closed when I first heard his song ‘Lake Marie’ from Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings.  In those six minutes, he took me around the world and back again. He managed to hit every human emotion and when I finally came to, I made the decision right then and there that I wanted to spend my life writing songs.

Luckily, I got to see him sing ‘Lake Marie’ in 2009 at Red Rocks. I sat there with a big smile and cried to myself…just like I am right now writing this. Thank you John.” 

Prine was a musician respected by everyone from Raitt to Bob Dylan to Kris Kristofferson. Levon Helm, the late drummer from The Band, would hold Midnight Rambles with his band in his studio in Woodstock. Brian Cornish was present for one of these rambles in May of 2009. He offered this tale from that ramble in an article published at NYS Music and 315 Music.

One time, I and a few friends were seated behind the keyboards so we could look across the room at Levon. A man emerged to the right of my friends, stood at the end of the row, nodded hello, and exchanged small talk between songs in the semi-darkness. After ten or fifteen minutes, he said, “It’s been nice talking to you folks, but I have to go to work.” Only when he was under the stage lights and grabbed his guitar did we realize we’d been chatting with John Prine. Unannounced drop-in guest appearances and unexpected moments are hallmarks of many Midnight Rambles.

Brian Cornish, 315 Music
Setlist from Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble at his studio in Woodstock from May 16, 2009. This show featured an appearance from John Prine, who played four songs with the Ramble Band.

Prine’s 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness, garnered him many accolades, including induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and several Grammy nominations, leading to a career renaissance that had him touring the world. He was honored with the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in January.

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