John Prine will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame tonight. Last night, his music publishing company Downtown held a tribute for him to benefit 826NYC with an all-star lineup including Norah Jones, Antibalas Horns, Sara Bareilles, Stephen Colbert, Natalie Merchant, Nathaniel Rateliff, and The War and Treaty.
This is what I said this after reading the lyrics to Prine’s Mexican Home. (In which I successfully avoided using what my wife calls my Kris Kristofferson voice.)
I have never been on that porch in that song, but I feel like I could tell you about it. How it smells in the rain and how I’d get splinters when I’d walk on it barefoot. That fan in the window has a cracked nob. When you set it all the way to three, it rattles and squeaks like a Honeymoon couple.
This is what happens with a John Prine song. It works its way into your head until it feels like your own memory.
Emerson wrote in one of his diaries that a writer who picks one right word can open a doorway to galaxies. Well then, John Prine is Buck Rogers.
For me, John Prine first started delivering these memories in 1991. My college girlfriend had been a waitress in Tennessee club where he played. She had a bootleg cassette tape. It interfered with my education. If I put it on while I studied, I couldn’t study because I kept listening to the words.
Did he really just rhyme Appalachia and Greyhound station? And then suddenly I was in the galexy of that gray stone building. All alone.
He wrote about what was there but also what wasn’t there. Have you ever asked someone a question and they give you too many answers? In giving you too many answers they say more than any words they actually say. “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain, actually everything is just about the same” is one of the best examples of that.
When Lydia felt like “Sunday on a Saturday afternoon” I knew what that meant in my bones.
Or I thought I did. John opens up galexies, but leaves the exploration to us. He once said “writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there.” This should be given to every writing student. In doing this, he gives us room to roam around.
I married that college girlfriend and John Prine’s music followed us into the nursery. Bottomless Lake, Spanish Pipedream, That’s the Way the World Goes Round (with the happy enchilada story) Paradise, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness — I sang them all to our children as I walked with them on my shoulder until their breathing got heavy and I could lay them down.
As the kids got older I had to change the words to protect the innocent. My sharp-eared daughter would have asked: “Daddy why does she have her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees?” (Dear Abby).
Last summer I took one of those kids who was on my shoulder and whose shoulder is now at about my ear, to see John Prine at Wolftrap. And as John sang those songs that I had sung, that boy– sitting next to that college girlfriend– sang those songs right back. Words may open up galaxies but in that moment John Prine bound my whole world.
John said he tells young songwriters to be careful of the songs they write because it might become a hit and they have to sing it the rest of their lives. There’s an extension of this: it is possible to write songs that will be with other people for the rest of their lives. There’s the music you put on in your house, and there’s the kind of music in which you make your home.
I’ll end by doing the most tedious thing in the world. I am going to quote from myself on Twitter. A few years ago, I’d never met John, but he writes the kind of music that makes a man utter declarations out loud into the world. I wrote: “Hey John Prine I hope someone has filled as many of your days with joy and sunshine as you have mine.”
Congratulations John on your honor and Thank you.