The Inside Rail

Ironically, there’s a fly buzzing around the kitchen as I sit down in the dark, pour the first cup of coffee and think about John Prine.

My favorite artist, ever, has died. An old friend, who I had never met.

As I read somewhere, John Prine made you feel like you were the first to discover him. Funny how he could do that for all of us. Whether it was Roger Ebert stumbling upon Prine at a folk club in Chicago for his first music review, or Kris Kristofferson listening to Prine sing seven originals in an after-hours solo or Bonnie Raitt falling for those flies buzzing and that poster from an old rodeo in Angel from Montgomery or any of us mortals hearing Prine on the second side of a mixed tape or from a wannabe Dylan trespassing a guitar at the back of a bar.

A songwriter’s songwriter, Prine wrote about everyday things, everyday life; the good, the bad, the ugly in raw deliverance. Haunting and hilarious, enriching and evoking, clarifying and confusing, no one wrote songs like John Prine. The one-time mailman wove his way into my life, just like he wove his way into all of our lives, Americana, they called it. His fans, his disciples run the gamut from young to old, rich to poor, debauched to buttoned-up. It doesn’t matter, there is a song, a line, a note, a character that struck a chord, oh hell, became a chord of your life.

For me, Prine became a companion early, certainly by high school, maybe middle school, I can’t remember when he wasn’t. Sweet Revenge was the album. You know the one, Prine sitting sideways in a convertible, cigarette dangling, faded shirt, worn jeans, toes of his cowboy boots propped on the passenger side door frame. He looked like everything I wasn’t. Then the songs, oh, those indelible songs. Sweet Revenge…Please Don’t Bury Me…Christmas In Prison…Dear Abby…Blue Umbrella…Often Is A Word I Seldom Use. And that was Side A.

Vinyls spinning on a stereo I won for selling magazines in seventh grade morphed into cassette tapes on automatic flip in my Chevy Cavalier which turned into CDs playing in a basement apartment on Madison Drive at the University of Delaware. An escape, an excursion. A buoy, a beacon. On nervous road trips to the races, on languid Sunday afternoons, there was my old friend, who I had never met.

There was the first time I saw him, years after college, at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del. I had broken up with a girlfriend that afternoon, the empty seat to my right gnawing at me, the restless unknown of a breakup. When Prine sang, “There’s a big old goofy man dancing with a big old goofy girl…ooh baby, it’s a big old goofy world,” I guess, I knew it was over from the words of my old friend, who I had never met.

There was the time when I helped a friend of a friend move her stuff, her life, from a toxic relationship. In a borrowed pick-up, we pulled into the driveway, hoping he wasn’t home. A pile of clothes, bits of furniture, probably a John Prine album in there somewhere, were strewn like they had fallen off the back of a flatbed. A bunch of junk, really, we loaded what we could into the back of the truck, wedged a flea market painting behind the seat, a backpack on the floor of the cab and left the rest. Three of us crammed across the bench seat, me riding the clutch and shifting gears between my future wife’s knees, her friend looking out the window into the abyss of middle-aged loneliness. Nobody said a word, a burgeoning relationship and a shattered relationship for all of us to feel. The FM radio picked up a signal as we crossed over the Paris Gap, words came staccato through static, “…level-headed dancer…about the time the juke box broke…and these are the words she spoke…” We jumped in at “plant a little garden,” and raised it up three notches at “eat a lot of peaches,” belting out the crazy words from an old friend, who we had never met.

A few years later, after Miles was born, we stopped to see another old friend, Jim Bergen, at Jonathan Sheppard’s Buttonwood barn on Lamborntown Road in Pennsylvania. On a hot afternoon, Bergen, the last man there, as always, walked out of a dingy tack room and met Miles. It didn’t take any prodding for Miles to sing “Dear Abby,” verse after glorious verse. Yeah, even the one about the curlers in her hair and her pants to her knees. There’s a photo of Miles and Jim somewhere, Jim on his knee, Miles saluting the camera, two originals in a world of homogenization. I can see Prine in there too. An old friend, who we had never met.

There was the time when Miles and I drove to Bryce Mountain on our first Ski Friday with Hill School. JK or kindergarten, both of us uneasy at the new endeavor. As I pulled my Subaru out of the parking lot, Pandora Radio transferred from my phone to the car. It just kind of happened, I didn’t ask it and didn’t know it could, John Prine Radio pounced to life. It might have been Sam Stone or Hello In There or Dear Abby or Paradise, I don’t recall which one was first but by the time we got home, we had listened to all of them. Miles sang until he fell asleep. The following Friday, he asked for John Prine Radio and every Friday and every car ride thereafter, we listened to John Prine. Well, other than when we went to baseball and it was Bruce Springsteen, to get in the mood for baseball, naturally. All the other times, it has been John Prine. For Christmas a few years back, Miles and our friend, Jamie Potter, recorded Paradise and Dear Abby for Annie. Two songs, two stories, from an old friend, who we had never met.

There was the first time we went to Wolf Trap to see him in 2016. Annie, Miles and I, in the last row of seats, a mile from the stage. Miles, the youngest person there by decades, waved Annie’s white scarf and danced in the aisle when Prine played Fish and Whistle, the usher allowing for the moment of euphoria. After an encore of Paradise, we walked to the car, Miles held my hand and looked up at me, “It was great, Dad.” A great show from an old friend, who we had never met.

There was the second time we saw him at Wolf Trap. The Tree of Forgiveness tour with Margo Price, June 1, 2018. My nephew, Ryan, his girlfriend, Ilana, Miles and I, as Annie was home in Alabama. I splurged and got tickets close to the stage, fifth, maybe sixth, row, center stage. Prine sang his old stuff, his new stuff, all his stuff, starting with Six O’Clock News and finishing with Paradise. Miles stood and swayed, going word for word, toe to toe through Grandpa Was a Carpenter, Illegal Smile and When I Get to Heaven. A couple in front of us turned, you know, the-talking-in-a-movie pivot, slow and glaring. I almost tempered Miles, almost asked him to sing quieter. I’m glad I didn’t. An old friend, who we had never met.

There was the dinner party this winter, a few days before Christmas, the highlight of this year's holidays. Impromptu, we threw our friends together, threw the dinner together and danced on the tables. Helen and Gary, George and Maria, Chris and Laurie. Miles spun vinyls, The Beatles, the Kinks, Dylan and then asked if anybody wanted to hear John Prine. Some affirmed, most abstained and then we sang every word from every song on Prime Prine, the best of John Prine, an album we bought for $8 at an antiques/vintage collectibles store in Purcellville, Va. Worlds colliding, friends escaping through an old friend, who we had never met.

There was the time at Old Ox Brewery in February, back when we could socialize in groups, back when all the world was young. Miles played Oz in the Hill School Drama Club’s version of the Wizard of Oz and we stopped for an after-theatre sip and snack. Miles’ teachers, Dr. Lyman and Dr. Haefner, asked Miles to join them in a perfectly delivered, acoustically-challenged rendition of Sweet Revenge. Our old friend, who we had never met. Our Wolf Trap.

John Prine was scheduled to play at Wolf Trap this summer. I was going to buy tickets for Annie, Miles and me. And for Jamie (and his wife Amy) to thank him for accompanying Miles with Tangled Up in Blue in this year’s talent show, their fourth together. I was going to tell Miles we had tickets for our third John Prine concert, knowing one of these would be the last for the 73-year-old who had battled back from two bouts of cancer. Sadly, there would only be two. Surely, Miles and Jamie will play Paradise in next year’s talent show, our favorite song from our old friend, who we had never met.

The fly has left the kitchen, another pot of coffee needs brewing and I have to walk upstairs and tell Miles that John Prine is gone. Our old friend, who we had never met.