A few weeks ago, 73-year-old John Prine was raising money for the victims of the tornadoes that struck Nashville. I ordered a T-shirt from him to support the cause. A day or two later, the United States started shutting down. Coronavirus was coming hard. On April 7, it took John Prine.
He was a man who wrote eloquently about death. Sometimes his words were devastating, as when Sam Stone, a veteran and father who had a hole in his arm where all the money goes, popped his last balloon.
More recently, he approached death open-armed, even with charm. In Prine’s final full-length album, The Tree of Forgiveness, he sang about going to heaven, shaking God's hand, and smoking a cigarette that’s nine miles long. He imagined seeing his father, who would tell him, “When you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead.”
Prine hoped to prove his father wrong, and if he gets the chance, I'll bet he will.
Singer-songwriters often get weighed next to Bob Dylan, and in the ’70s, Prine suffered plenty of that. But he was more Raymond Carver, telling stories rich with details, sometimes so subtle in their bare-bones poetry that it takes a minute to look into the abyss of profundity and see how deep it goes.
It has no bottom.
Denver saw Prine twice in the past couple of years — once at the Buell Theatre, where Nathaniel Rateliff opened for him; the two went on to record versions of "Sam Stone" for Rateliff's Marigold Singles project.
"My heart is broken over the unfortunate loss of my friend John," wrote Rateliff on Facebook this morning. "My condolences to his family. It was an honor to share the time that I had with him. Thank you buddy rest easy John Prine."
Prine's most recent Denver concert was at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where he played alongside the Colorado Symphony.
"It is with heavy hearts that the world says farewell to musical legend John Prine," the Colorado Symphony posted on its website. "We are grateful and humbled to have performed alongside such an imaginative, bright soul."
I've never seen a performer enjoy himself as much as Prine. Whether he was shimmying and shuffling on and off stage, paying tribute to his bandmates, or cracking up the crowd with a few chords and well-practiced jokes about his song “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967,” he made us feel like those big concerts were in his living room, and we were his longtime friends.
He was masterful, but not showy. He was kindly and warm, but not saccharine. And every song he sang — whether it was from his days working as a postman and playing Chicago's Fifth Peg open-mic circuit in the late ’60s or his latest at Red Rocks — was delivered like it was the first time he'd ever performed that song. And no matter how obscure it was, the audience sang along.
In his last hours at the hospital, he was sedated; his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, sat next to him.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"Our beloved John died yesterday evening at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville TN," she wrote fans after he passed. "We have no words to describe the grief our family is experiencing at this time. John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter in law Fanny, and by our grandchildren."
But she also offered cautionary words for the public.
“My dearest wish is that people of all ages take this virus seriously and follow guidelines set by the CDC,” she wrote. “We send our condolences and love to the thousands of other American families who are grieving the loss of loved ones at this time — and to so many other families across the world.”