Musician John Prime on stage in 2016. Wikipedia

Peter Stockland: In praise of Prine and calls to grace

  • April 18, 2020

Given his bad-boy-again half-smile and love for re-playing clichés as humourous surprises, it’s understandable to hope word of John Prine’s death during Holy Week is a prank of cosmic timing that he okayed with God first.

The hard truth is the singer-songwriter succumbed on April 7 to COVID-19 after contracting the coronavirus from his wife. A musician who defied musical categories for 40 years after he gave up a job as a mailman in 1971, he lives now only in his unique lyrical constructs so widely recorded by others that their genesis from his pencil is frequently forgotten.

Whisper the opening line of “Angel from Montgomery,” and those who know it invariably hear Bonnie Raitt’s voice swelling: “I am an old woman/Named after my mother….” But the song’s clinching question, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?” is pure Prine in its probing of the spiritual emptiness so many stand before.

The native of Maywood, Ill. (so proud of his working-class parents’ kinship with rural Kentucky), claimed no official membership in the Christian tribe.

Yet in a 2007 scholarly article for the Journal of Religion and Health, Philip Browning Hesel identified Prine as one of the artists who filled the space left by failing church adherence in an attempt to “grapple with God … in the face of desire, power and the demands of modern” culture.

“While God is not an explicit presence in many of his songs, it is clear from his references to God, Jesus and the church that a religious upbringing was a significant factor in his life,” Hesel wrote. “His songs depict the longing people have for meaningful relationship through everyday characters, both fictional and autobiographical.”

Appropriate to Easter season, he sees in Prine a “concern for sustenance, of eating and being eaten, which is a reflection of the sacramental nature of God as giver of food… with the sustenance of being fed as a child….” Especially in the lyrics’ humour, the writer-singer playfully sets up conversational equality with God (some call it prayer) so he can forgive the wounds of life rather than angrily shaking a fist at the Creator and blaming all on Him.

As Prine sings in “Chain of Sorrow,” written when his own life and career veered toward deep pain after his burst of stardom: “You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder/ Throw your hands in the air, say ‘What does it matter?’/But it don’t do no good to get angry/ So help me I know/For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter/ You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there/ Wrapped up in the trap/ Of your very own/Chain of sorrow.”

The chorus becomes a cry from the singer’s heart for the human apartness that turns us away from creation and ever deeper into the deafening noise of our own pain. John Donne taught us no man is an island. Just so Prine, our contemporary poet of loneliness, insists isolation can be defeated only if we heave-to together on the boat’s oars.

In “Everybody,” he cheekily recalls sailing on the sea and bumping into Jesus, who invites him to “sit down, son, ’cause I got some fat to chew.” A monologue follows from Our Lord, which Prine sits through without a squawk simply because: “Everybody needs somebody/that they can talk to/Someone to open up their ears/and let their troubles through/Now you don’t have to sympathize or care what they may do/But everybody needs somebody/That they can talk to.”

Prine made “Billy The Bum” an excoriation of the passivity of “those folks in their holy cloaks” who fail the poor, the suffering, the disabled, the lonely. He exhorts us to see the faces of all God’s children. Caustically, he demands of those unable to recognize our human kinship: “Don’t you know her when you see her?/ She grew up in your backyard/Come back to us, Barbara Lewis/Hare Krishna Beauregard.”

It’s but one of his many calls to grace that all who grew up with John Prine in our ears know will never die.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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