John Prine’s Performances Turned The World Into A Small Town: Tribute

John Prine
(Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

John Prine, one of the greatest American singer/songwriters and captivating performers of all-time, in concert on Aug. 3, 1979 in Chicago.

When John Prine was onstage, the whole world was a small town. It wasn’t Mayberry. Old people still get forgotten in “Hello In There;” junkie vets still die alone while “their kids ran around in other people’s clothes” in “Sam Stone;” and housewives in dead end marriages ponder who they once were in “Angel from Montgomery.”

John Prine and Bonnie Raitt
(Photo by Denise Sofranko/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

Bonnie Raitt and John Prine performing circa 1993.
Whether you saw John in the salad days after being proclaimed the first “New Bob Dylan,” as the momentum waned and tastes shifted to punk, or in more recent years with a band, special guests and opening acts who’d pop back out for duets, you recognized the pathos of how he saw the world. It was through a lens of kindness, a prism of making actual people. Simple chords, a bashing downstroke when needed, a few well-chosen notes on the quiet ones, he was a campfire hero with a poetry tempered by common language.

And language delighted him. When he recorded his first live album – and live albums worked for Prine, as the audience changed the chemistry and his bands morphed over time to take the songs to new and powerful places – he tells the story of the happy enchilada. It’s a malaprop, but he’s so engaged with the story, you can hear the smile as he finally says, “Lady, I’ve never written a song about an enchilada, happy or otherwise…” before launching into “That’s The Way The World Goes Round” with its lament, “It’s a half an inch of water, and you think you’re gonna drown…”

“That’s The Way” is classic Prine, containing the gorgeous metaphor “naked as the eyes of a clown.” It runs a trout line of images, moments that tumble into a day, dumb defeats, human treasons, even domestic abuse that never pulls a couple apart. But the sing-song melody pulls people in, and the cheerful sing along on a chorus that offers a philosophy we can cling to. Sometimes the wisdom comes wrapped in a joke. “Illegal Smile” offers a pre-weed-card stress remedy, while “Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)” resolved the talking head fear-baiting dilemma almost a half century prior to today’s self-validating news cycles.

John could walk onstage at Dublin’s the Point in a pink tie and a black jacket, natty as hell, and introduce the world to a new songwriter named Lyle Lovett, as easily as let Philip Donnelly cascade into a spaghetti Western sweep through “Saddle In The Rain,” with a young Marty Stuart churning the urgency on mandolin. It was the way music picked people up, carried them, took them places they might not get to otherwise that made Prine’s live thing such a highwire act.

To stand on the side of the stage at Wolf trap in the ‘80s or the 2000s was to see erudite and blue collar coming together in a communion of high/low revelation that elevated everyone’s game. For some, it was about the political moments, whether “Some Humans Ain’t Human” or “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More.” For others, the ribald humor of “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian” (“would you like a lei? HEY!”). And still more craved the tenderness of “The Oldest Baby in the World,” or later, the mournful “Summer’s End,” from his what will be his final The Tree of Forgiveness.

John Prine
(Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

John Prine, left, with his longtime guitarist Steve Goodman at the Park West in Chicago on Sept. 23, 1978

To switch emotional gears like that requires earnestness. It’s not like changing the video or hitting the pyro. You have to believe deeply in the songs, the moment, the people listening. For John, there was never another option: the people, the songs, they were everything.

To see John take the stage at Farm Aid in the afternoon was to see a guy who believed in the family farmers. He grew up the son of a ward healer, the grandchild of people from Kentucky – and he understood working the land, using your body to make your way. 

He understood the vantage of home and family, turning up at just about every Everly Jam in Paradise, Kentucky. A rambling kind of show, it was more quaint than Willie’s picnics, but it allowed his roots to return to the scene of “Paradise.” Not quite a bluegrass show, the Mommer’n’them feel was palpable.

The same feel that infused his Christmas Whole Damn Fam shows at the Villager, then later the Station Inn with the raucous fun of a family reunion. With Jim Rooney and Cowboy Jack, Clement, you never knew what was coming – but you could count on it being tasty, classic and wry.

As good as all that was, and it was, his last decade has been a trajectory of growth. The band shows were fiery, the younger artists coming to be part added a youthful passion for the songs that never seemed to have a timestamp.

Fiona Whelan Prine, John’s wife who’d once run U2’s recording studio, stepped in as manager when Al Bunetta past. Her son Jody took over Oh Boy Records and started mingling these emerging alternative and Americana artists into John’s world. It only made the tilt onstage hotter.

Multiple nights at the Ryman. Carnegie Hall. Red Rocks. Royal Festival Hall in London. The Tivoli in Australia. TSB Arena in New Zealand. The Orpheum. The Beacon. The Grand Ole Opry. To see John at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fest was bucolic, Hippies, hipsters, young families, octogenarians, activists, pacifists and other artists all watched enraptured, as the grassy field felt like the world’s best summer camp. No matter who you were, you got lost in the novellas and short stories within the songs, jumped up and down to the fun ones and chanted along to the choruses.

That’s the deal: to be not in the moment, but in the song. When John, with that dusty gravel voice, put on his Martin, it wasn’t a legend who numbers Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bob Thornton among his admirers, nor a pilot light for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves and Kelsey Waldron, but a guy from Maywood, Illinois who understands delivering the mail, wanting to fall in love and what it’s like to come up short.

Rare is the person who can make you believe they understand. Rarer still is the one who can make you understand. But any night John walked out onstage, the assembled transcended who they were when they got there and became the people they were meant to be.