John Prine’s story starts like a miracle or a myth, to hear some
tell it. A mailman walks into a bar and strums out three seminal songs in his first shot at an open mic. In a matter of minutes, a nobody from Chicago has this country—and, indeed, all of humanity—figured out. He becomes a folk hero.
But that’s not how anything starts. In Prine’s story, like every American story, the success is the lie. What comes before that is sometimes too painful to recall or recount, or it’s all too mundane to consider. But that’s where the story is, and we might have to use a little imagination to find it. Problem is, we’re always focusing on the wrong parts.
Prine loved the right parts: misshapen people, mismatched marriages, lonely creeps, uncertain outlaws, delusional lovers and brilliant idiots. His people are the ones making mistakes or coming to the wrong conclusions or flinching from destiny. It’s what comes before the moment that’s important, and few artists understood what was happening before the moment as well as Prine.
Important things happened to Prine before he wrote “Sam Stone” and “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery.” We don’t have time for the days he spent sleeping through math class or listening to the radio or sneaking into movie theaters, but those are the things that build an imagination. And he built a powerful one.
He wasn’t an old woman named after his mother, but he could imagine being forlorn in marriage, lost at the end of love. He wasn’t a war veteran strung out on heroin, but he could imagine being a broken cog lost in the machinery of empire.
Prine saw a world losing its imagination and offered his hand. What is it like to grow old? How do children deal with tragedy? What if the game is rigged? How do you smile when everyone is drowning in despair? How do you talk dirty in Hawaiian?
We could be better, he seemed to say, if we just focused on the right parts of the story. He knew what the problems were and could imagine the answers, but he also knew we were going to screw it up and focus on the wrong things. We can’t help it.
It took years of listening to “Paradise” before I realized it was about a real place—a coal camp in Kentucky—that was indeed wiped off the map by Peabody Coal Company and the TVA. It’s one of the great environmental anthems of all time, but to hear Prine sing it, it’s just the facts, embroidered with a few too-specific details from his childhood memories. It couldn’t be a more literal folk song, yet it shimmers like Brigadoon in the mist, too real to exist.
But Paradise did exist, Prine assures us. And it could exist again.
John Prine is gone, and it’s tempting to wonder what he would have to say about these strange days. Probably the same things he said about all the equally strange days that came before. People are heartbroken fools, selfish clowns and brain-dead dreamers. Everything is terrible, everything is beautiful, and if you don’t get the joke, you’re not using your imagination.
We’re in a moment of great unmooring. Money blows like dogwood petals across the yard. Motorcycles peal in the distance, insisting on importance in the dominion of a microscopic warlord. The smell of melting vinyl wafts in from every dirty, little war. The mailman walks by, smiling in violation of the law and every other lie he slips through the slot in your door.
Look at your own story in this glorious world, and notice that it’s no longer tethered to its inevitable conclusion. Focus on the right parts. Use your very large imagination.
Hot dog bun. My sister’s a nun.