The Ballad of John Prine

John Prine
Photograph by Danny Clinch

The afternoon rush at Arnold’s Country Kitchen is in full effect. The Nashville institution, not too far from downtown, is a classic, cafeteria-style “meat and three,” and it’s packed, mostly with working folks on their lunch breaks—telephone repairmen, still wearing their baseball caps; girlfriends, four to a table, leaning in close. I’m seated at a corner table, the only empty one remaining, waiting on John Prine.

He arrives, pushing through the old glass double doors. No one looks up, which is probably one of the reasons he comes here. When I rise to greet him, Rose Arnold, the diner’s co-owner, glides from out of nowhere, like a free safety descending on a receiver who’s gotten behind a linebacker and is out in space. “Do you know this man, John?” Arnold asks. And Prine, who doesn’t know me from boo, nods, smiles carefully, shakes my hand.

He’s wearing black jeans, a black sweater, a black leather jacket, and round designer black sunglasses. We head over to the buffet, Prine moving with a bowlegged, rocking gait, like an old rodeo cowboy. He piles his tray with roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, chicken-fried steak, simmering brown gravy. The servers here seem to know him, greeting him with great fondness. Prine tells me that on days when they have banana cream or strawberry pie, Arnold always hides the last piece and saves it for him. We carry our trays back to the table and, like country folks, begin talking about the weather. A waiter with a slight limp, his vague stoop not unlike Prine’s, keeps stopping by, asking if we want more sweet tea, wiping crumbs from our table, refilling our water glasses.

When Prine begins telling a story, time seems to slow down. The topic at the moment is cigarettes, which he gave up after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996—surgeons had to cut out a chunk of his neck and irradiated his throat for six weeks. He says he still misses cigarettes “desperately, every day.” The last song on Prine’s new album, Tree of Forgiveness—his first new material in 
13 years—is called “When I Get to Heaven,” but it’s no sad dirge. Instead, like many of Prine’s best songs, it’s rollicking and funny, a list of all the fine things Prine, now 71, will be able to do when “on up to heaven he does ride.” Among the highlights: “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette nine miles long.”

In the middle of our lunch, Fiona Prine, John’s third wife and his manager, stops by—to suss me out, I think. The two have been together for 30 years; now 56, she’s striking, with lush red hair and a freckled face that radiates passion and authority. “What you see with him is what you get,” Fiona tells me about her husband. “What I saw when I met him is exactly what I got. He’s the real deal.” She shakes my hand again and is off, and I have the not-uncomfortable feeling of having been evaluated and found trustworthy.

American songwriter John Prine photographed by Danny Clinch for the April 2018 issue of Men's Journal
Photograph by Danny Clinch

After Fiona goes, John tells me the story of how they met. It was 1988, at an afterparty at Blooms Hotel in Dublin, where Prine was on tour. “I was at this bar trying to get a drink, and I was 14 people back,” Prine says. “I had my guitar with me. I couldn’t get to the front, so I went around to the other side. And there was this Irish actress at the end—she said to me, ‘C’mere, John Prine, there’s someone I want you to meet.’ It was Fiona. Fiona said, ‘I saw you play when I was 17. When will I hear you next?’ And I said, ‘Right now,’ and walked up on stage with her and just started playing. And oh yeah, it was love at first sight.” Five years later, they moved to Nashville. Soon they had a son, Tommy, and 10 months later, another, Jack. “Irish twins,” Prine says. (He also adopted Fiona’s son from a previous marriage, Jody.)

“Anyway,” Prine says, “that’s how I remember it. You might want to check with her on her version.”

As we box up our leftovers, a middle-aged guy in a white shirt, dress pants, and a grin the size of an alligator’s approaches our table—Arnold accompanies him, assuring Prine that “he’s a good guy.” The man shakes Prine’s hand, tells him he’s been a fan for years, reels off one favorite song after another. Prine says he’s real glad to hear that, and an awkward silence ensues. The guy just keeps standing there, smiling. The muscles in his face suggest he’s almost always smiling. We say goodbye, clear our dishes, and take our leave. Prine has to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get an annual emissions check.

John Prine has been writing songs and making records—20 of them—since 1971. He’s never had a true hit single or upended the Nashville music machine, the way Waylon, Willie, and the rest of the Outlaws did. There is no John Prine legend, not really. He has never stomped out the lights of the Opry like Johnny Cash, or drunkenly driven his lawn mower to the liquor store like George Jones, or served time like Merle Haggard. Hollywood will never produce a biopic about his life, like Ray or Walk the Line.

Nonetheless, Prine is among the most revered and influential country artists of all time, having gained notoriety not for his antics or charisma but for his ability to turn a phrase. With songs like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” and “In Spite of Ourselves,” he has amassed a legion of devoted fans, who cherish him like the world’s greatest secret. Kris Kristofferson, who discovered him, once said Prine was so good that other musicians were “going to have to break his fingers,” and Bob Dylan said, “Prine’s stuff is Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

Prine is often compared to Dylan. But while Dylan is a poet, Prine is a storyteller. He favors old-fashioned “story songs,” carrying on a narrative tradition blazed by the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, and Jimmie Rodgers nearly a century ago. His songs have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and are often populated by working-class characters, like the folks he grew up among. Over the years, he has written his share of sad songs, such as “Unwed Fathers” and “Hello in There.” But he’s at his best when he’s spinning a yarn, whether about family vacations gone awry, a dog nicknamed Pumpkin, or Jesus Christ’s early years before hitting it big. He is a sucker for a good punch line, and on stage, he laughs at his own jokes the way your grandfather might. To say he is the most beloved living songwriter would be selling him short somehow. Because for a lot of people, he is also their favorite person.

“Prine’s stuff is Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree,” Bob Dylan said. “And he writes beautiful songs.”

“He goes out and sings a heartbreaking song about his divorce every night, makes it new, makes it sadder every time,” says the singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, a close friend of Prine’s. (Prine is godfather to his daughter.)

And yet for a legend, he’s strikingly humble, as down to earth as ever. “How he is offstage is how he is on,” Isbell says. “The only difference is, he has a guitar and things are rhyming.”

We climb into a black Cadillac Escalade and head over to the DMV, Prine relaxing behind the wheel. “Man,” he says, “this is a good way to do an interview.” When we arrive, four lanes of cars and trucks wind serpentinely in waiting, for what seems like miles.

Prine owns four Cadillacs—a 1999 DeVille, a 1993 Eldorado, and two Escalades, a 2006 and this 2011 model. Clearly, he loves cars. “Sometimes I stay up late lookin’ at ’em online,” he tells me. He remembers the first car he ever drove: his family’s 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook. “My dad said I could drive it so long as I stayed in the driveway,” he says. “It was a short driveway. It was hard to even get going fast enough to shift to second. It was years before I ever hit third. I kept running into the garage door.”

John Prine and Jason Isbell
Prine (right) joins Jason Isbell on stage during night four of four sold-out shows at Ryman Auditorium on October 26, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. Erika Goldring/Getty Images

That was in Maywood, Illinois, where Prine grew up in the 1950s, the son of Bill and Verna Prine. Bill was a tool- and diemaker; Verna, a homemaker. Bill never made it past high school, and neither did John.

“Man, I hated school,” Prine says. To keep from going crazy, he says. “I’d stare at the buttons on the teacher’s shirt the whole class.” For a brief period, gymnastics seemed to offer a way out. “I was pretty darned good,” he says; he even made it to the state finals. But he eventually left the squad and instead became, he says, “a juvenile delinquent guitar player.”

In 1966, Prine was drafted into the Army, and drew lucky: He didn’t go into battle but worked as a bulldozer mechanic outside Stuttgart, Germany. It was a skill he did not possess; he had somehow aced a multiple-choice aptitude test. He often woke up hungover; to sleep it off, he would crawl under the dozers in the morning and rig a sling up in the maw, sleeping while it looked to all the rest of the world like he was busting his knuckles on a monkey wrench. (He did eventually learn how to repair them.)

Returning to Maywood, he got a job with the Postal Service. He made up songs on his route, then practiced them in a little shed, tucked out of the rain and snow and cold—songs about Vietnam, loveless marriages, coal mining stripping away paradise, and about heaven. Eventually, he went to the Fifth Peg, a club in nearby Chicago, downed a few beers, and, on a dare, ended up onstage, playing to about six people. “But those six people went out and brought six more the next week,” Prine says. “My fans have always taken care of me.”

Prine was soon playing clubs a few nights a week, waking up bleary-eyed for his early-morning mailman route. Pretty soon, the money from gigs exceeded the mailman paycheck. But it took him a while to work up his nerve to tell his dad he was quitting his job with steady employment for life to become a musician. His father didn’t say anything at first, just thought for a long time before finally speaking. “All he said,” says Prine, “was, ‘Watch out for those fuckin’ lawyers.’ ”

In 1971, Kristofferson saw Prine perform at Chicago’s Quiet Knight pub, was blown away by the songs, and helped Prine land a deal with Atlantic Records. “People give me credit for ‘discovering’ John Prine,” Kristofferson later said. “That’s like saying Columbus discovered America. It was already here.”

At the DMV, we’re still in line. But Prine seems oddly content. “I like doing chores,” he says. We creep ever closer to the test. “I’d play on the roof of the DMV if they’d pay me,” he says. “In my backyard. Anywhere.”

Finally a DMV technician completes the test, notates the emission—the Escalade passes—and we roll over to Prine’s office and studio in the Germantown district, listening to 89.5, Nashville’s Americana station.

We park by the Cumberland River and walk past an abandoned meatpacking factory, its long-dormant looming smokestacks stained and most of its dusty windows broken. It looks like a tableau from the senescent Midwest, and Prine says that’s why he likes it. We cross the parking lot to a basement office: more of a bunker, really, a musician’s man cave. Old photos, not of musicians but of sound engineers and producers, hang on the wall. “It’s mainly a place to keep my pool table,” Prine says—it glows with new green felt.

John Prine
Courtesy of John Prine

The little one-room studio makes sense. Prine has never really had any big hits. His closest brush with the charts probably came back in 1971, when he and his friend Steve Goodman attempted to write the “perfect country and western song.” With typical generosity, Prine gave the tune, and the rights, to Goodman, and the song—“You Never Even Called Me by My Name”—eventually was a top 10 single for David Allan Coe.

As a thank-you, Goodman gave his friend a beautiful, gold, ancient Wurlitzer jukebox. It looks like it could be a tollbooth at the pearly gates. Prine pushes a button, and the golden arm within the glass dome lifts a platter and slides it into position under the needle, the motion smooth as a Cadillac’s. Perry Como’s voice comes back from the dead, crooning; fills the room, stops time. Or, at least, keeps it at bay.

The next morning, Prine picks me 
up at my hotel. He’s in a different Caddy today, that cherry-red two-tone 1993 Eldorado Classic. He bought it online, drawn by the low mileage. Sitting low in the seat, he looks raffish. It makes me wonder: How does a happy man, a contented man, write so well about loneliness? I’m thinking about these lines from one of my favorite songs, 1995’s “We Are the Lonely”:

There’s a girl I swear I never see
I hear the ringing of her phone
She must live up there all alone
She hangs her clothes out on the line
They’re hanging there right next to mine
And if the wind should blow just right
She could be in my arms tonight

“I embraced loneliness as a kid,” Prine says. “I know what loneliness is. When you’re at the end of your rope. I never forget those feelings.” He pauses. “Who wants to write about 
happy things?”

After his cancer surgery, many fans feared that Prine might never sing again. Instead, a lot of people think Prine’s voice has improved since the treatment—it’s now a warm, gravelly growl, more in line with his conversational voice. A friend’s low purr. Prine tells me about his writing process: “I have one thing—a funny line.” And then, on the other end, as he explains it, is the story, the heart, the emotion. “And I draw a thread to go from the one to the other.” And he does it like nobody else, going from first to third gear so smoothly that you don’t even realize you’re still laughing. Take this gem from 1973’s “Christmas in Prison”: “She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire, or a picnic in the rain after a prairie fire. Her heart is as big as this whole goddamn jail.”

Prine guns the Eldorado, and I find myself thinking back to something Fiona told me. She was describing that night in Dublin, when she first saw Prine approaching her, the hammering of her heart, the adrenaline running down through her arms and into the tips of her fingers. She was working with U2 at the time, at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. Hundreds of kids would line up outside her office each day, hoping for a peek at Bono. But her eyes were set on Prine. “He’s the real deal; he’s organic,” she says. “He is always in his body, always in the moment. Sometimes it drives me crazy, and sometimes it’s the most beautiful, wonderful thing in the world.”

He takes care of us, and his fans keep taking care of him. I like to think of Prine as the unknown Buddha of America. “You forgive us, we’ll forgive you,” he sings in “Fish and Whistle,” from the 1978 album, Bruised Orange. “We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue, then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.”

This story appeared in the April 2018 print issue, with the headline, “The Ballad of John Prine.”

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