To say that John Prine wrote great songs seems like a massive understatement. Prine painted vivid pictures with words. In the course of a couple of songs, he could make you laugh harder than you had in weeks, make you miss your childhood home, and bring you to tears. You don’t listen to his songs. You feel them. They don’t pass through your ears into your mind, they drive straight to your soul.
The world lost John Prine in April of last year. The pandemic took him. However, not even a devastating global pandemic could remove his genius from this world. His uncanny way with words, driven by his huge heart, made him a legendary figure. He left behind nearly 50 years’ worth of music, a family dedicated to carrying on his legacy, and millions of fans who will spread his music far and wide.
Today, Mr. Prine would have been 75 years young. His life and career are too full of stories to even scratch the surface here. Instead, we’re going to celebrate his birthday the best way we can – with his songs. Following Prine’s example, we’ll take a trip through some emotions and come out the other side better for it.
“In Spite of Ourselves” My Favorite John Prine Song
To me, it only seems right to start with “In Spite of Ourselves,” because it is, without a doubt, my favorite. It’s bawdy yet heartfelt, the way love songs should be. On a more personal note, my wife and I see this as “our song,” and it never fails to get a wry smile out of us.
“In Spite of Ourselves,” is the title track from John Prine’s 1999 record of duets. Interestingly, most of the songs on the album are covers. In fact, this is the only Prine-penned song on the album. He and Iris DeMent play the roles of a couple who aren’t picture-perfect but love one another anyway. This song is the big door prize. Check out the video below to learn the history of the song and hear John and Iris sing it live.
It doesn’t matter where you come from, your hometown is different. For some, John Prine’s father included, your hometown is gone. Coal companies bought up towns and dug up the riches below, completely ignoring the wealth of humanity that existed there before.
Prine wrote “Paradise,” for his father and included it on his self-titled debut album in 1971. There’s a sense of longing in the song. However, the lyrics also contain the stripe protest and social commentary that much of his music contained. Watch Prine and John Burns play the song in front of Prine’s childhood home in Illinois. He gives a little history on the song here as well.
“Sam Stone,” was also on John Prine’s debut record. This is one of the saddest songs ever written, It hits harder if you’ve watched someone waste away at the end of a needle-like the titular character in the story.
In “Sam Stone,” John Prine sings about a veteran who comes home from “the conflict overseas,” with a Purple Heart and opiate addiction. The lyrics follow Sam’s decline into crime, familial neglect, poverty, and his eventual death. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” is one of the most painfully accurate lines ever written about the destructive effects of addiction on a family.
In short, John Prine left behind a huge catalog of incredible songs and millions of memories to go with them. Happy birthday, Mr. Prine. Wherever you are, I hope you’re drinking a bathtub-size Handsome Johnny and smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette.