When I was in college, I was listening to one of Austin’s legendary disc jockeys, Jody Denberg, one day and heard him play a song I just could not get over. It was funny, deep, incredibly well written, and got me really interested in who the singer-songwriter might be. That song was “Spanish Pipedream,” and the singer-songwriter was the one and only John Prine.
John Prine was discovered by the most unlikely of sources, former Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, in a dive bar in the Windy City in 1970. Working as a mailman and just singing on the side, Prine eventually was recognized as one of America’s elite songwriters. His work has influenced countless artists including Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Josh Ritter, Conor Oberst, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, and many, many more.
Called a “New Dylan” when he came onto the music scene, Prine has penned some of the greatest country and folk songs of the last 50 years. Like Bob Dylan, many people have gone on to record his songs, some to greater success than Prine himself ever enjoyed with the same lyrics.
Perhaps the best example of that is the classic “Angel From Montgomery.” Prine wrote “Angel” for his self-titled debut album in 1971, but it has gone on to be covered by James Taylor, John Denver, Carly Simon, Tanya Tucker, Old Crow Medicine Show, Brandi Carlile, Ben Harper, Grace Potter, and many more. Its most famous rendition was perhaps Bonnie Raitt’s, which is still popular more than 40 years after she first performed it. For my money though, the ultimate version of “Angel From Montgomery” is from blues goddess Susan Tedeschi.
I first heard Tedeschi sing this on Conan O’Brien when I was up late one night in college, and I immediately fell in love with the song.
So many of Prine’s songs are still relevant decades after he wrote them. That first song I heard of Prine’s is the perfect example. “Spanish Pipedream” has great lyrics that fits oh so well in the era of coronavirus, the same disease that tragically killed Prine. In that classic, Prine sings, “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, go to the country, build you a home. Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, try and find Jesus on your own.” In the era where density equals death, there’s no better advice than disconnecting from the modern world, moving to the country, and finding God. Heed the words of John Prine, New Yorkers. They might just save your life.
Another one of Prine’s classics and one of my favorites comes from his turn at acting with Billy Bob Thornton in the 2001 movie “Daddy and Them.” The song, “In Spite of Ourselves,” is a fantastic duet with Iris DeMent about a funny couple and all their little idiosyncrasies. It’s a perfect example about how each of Prine’s songs wasn’t just a few repetitive words yelled into a microphone. They told real stories, stories that sucked you in with every verse. You listen to his songs wanting to know what happens. That’s not easy to do, and it’s a real testament to his incredible talent.
Prine is in the same echelon of American songwriters as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, an elite group for sure.
Thanks to his great work, we already know what John Prine is doing now as he sits looking down on us. In his song “When I Get to Heaven,” John detailed exactly what he would do when he reached the pearly gates.
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town.
Well, John, you enjoy that cocktail and cigarette, and save me a seat at the bar. We’ll miss you, old man.