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The closest I ever got to John Prine, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who died Tuesday of complications related to coronavirus, was at the club where I bartended in Richmond in the early ‘80s.
Much More was a raucous, cavernous beer hall of a place on Broad Street, just around the corner from where Stonewall Jackson’s statue stares down the Boulevard. They’d pack in a good thousand people or more for beach music — “Sure, you can do it,” we’d tell the kids thinking about a spin on the mechanical bull — or soul music night with the Voltage Brothers or the occasional folk singer. The silver coolers bulged with long-neck Buds that we hurriedly traded for a buck apiece, the flow so steady we only ran to the register to drop off cash when the wad got too big to hold.
Tucked away in those coolers were a few six-packs of Heineken, the gourmet beer of the day. For the performers and their guests. Though management and talent always differed about the contract terms. Soon as someone walked away with a few “for the band,” the boss was at your side. “Did he pay?”
Wish I could say that John Prine was that close, just across the bar, and I had the chance to say something profound that would change his life like, “Really like your music, Mr. Prine.”
But the stage was close. I had a great view. And best of all I could hear him. Bringing to life all the characters I knew by heart from the new but already worn “Prime Prine” greatest hits collection I’d bought when I first got to college. Stories about Donald and Lydia, and Loretta and Rudy, and Dear Abby and poor Sam.
I was in school hoping to learn how to be a writer, a writer who wrote about people. A wannabe who didn’t have a clue about how to capture a person’s soul and heart and life story in a word or simple phrase. But John Prine could. And did.
John Prine sang about people’s joys and sorrows. Their missteps and missed opportunities. Their bravado and vulnerabilities. Their resilience and wisdom. Happy or sad, he told their tales, celebrated them, got it just exactly right. Always, it seemed, with profound respect and without judgment, even when he was kinda poking fun, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Aware, even in his early 20s, that there but for the grace of God …
It was an honor just to be in the same room. Had always felt like he was my guy, though he was way cooler. We’d both been in the Army. Both spent a lot of time in the late ‘70s having no idea what a good haircut looked like. Both forever with a beer nearby.
And we both loved coal country. His was Western Kentucky, mine Schuylkill County, Pa. I grew up playing on mountains of culm piled high around the rickety breakers left standing from a more prosperous time. So I got it when he sang in “Paradise”:
Then 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
Loved the song all the more cause he’s talking to his daddy in the chorus. My own dad wasn’t dead five years at that point, a wound that wasn’t healing. Hasn’t healed. Throat cancer. My senior year in high school. John Prime’s father had passed not long before that. So, loss. We shared that, too.
At times it was just flat out mourning:
My father died on the porch outside
On an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried
With a friend by the light of the moon.
Other times it was an almost welcome release. Again, poor Sam, trading the house he bought on the GI Bill for a “flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.”
And occasionally, oddly, joyous and fun:
And oh, what a feeling!
When my soul
Went through the ceiling
And on up into heaven, I did ride
When I learned he had cancer, a tumor on his neck, I worried. But, God bless him, he beat it. And, double miracle, he went back to performing. With that smile and twinkle in his eye intact. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and singing my songs,” he wrote fans. “Hopefully my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders.”
Then lung cancer. Beat that too.
The last time I saw him in concert, in Wilmington, Del., felt like a visit with an old friend. He was drinking water, not Heineken. We could’ve been the only two in the room, with me sitting back and listening to him tell stories I’d never tire of hearing. If we’d been across the bar from each other, I’d have simply said, Thanks. For all of it.
Part of me was looking forward to whatever wry, funny take he’d have on surviving the virus that turned the world upside down. Part of me knew better. Teared up at the first Facebook post about him in critical care. I still can’t talk about him without choking up.
We shared one more thing, I like to think. Awe for the grace we’d been granted in this big old goofy world. Not wholly deserved, of course, having our share of missteps and missed opportunities. But there, nonetheless. In second chances for happiness and love. In a daughter who writes with a skill and eye for detail, I will never know. And in a songwriting son who’s played in that same club in Richmond and who texted me from a guitar shop in Nashville about bumping into an old folk singer he knew I admired.
John Prine said it better — and, naturally, in much fewer words — on the last song of his last album:
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand