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Op-Ed: When John Gets to Heaven

The following is written by RCN contributor Rick Robinson

John Prine was music’s Everyman. Writing in simple rhymes containing complex meaning, he wrote about people we all know. He expressed feelings we all had felt but couldn’t appropriately put into our own words. His melodies became earworms to our souls.

It’s hard to imagine a world without John Prine in it. But we must. John Prine died this week at age 73 in Nashville from the Corona virus. 

If you know C-D-G on a guitar, you can play half John Prine’s catalogue of songs. But with gravel in his voice, Prine conveyed emotions that were as deep and comforting as the Word of God.  

John Prine was not a stranger to local venues. And whether you saw him at Bogarts, the Taft, the Aronoff Center or the student union at NKU, the troubadour known in his early years as “The Singing Mailman” always delivered.

His concerts were something special to experience. With an audience that knew all the words to every song on the set list, he encouraged people to sing along. And his interaction with the audience was priceless. His quirky stories in between songs enabled each audience member to glimpse inside his head. And it was always funny, moving and a soul to soul connection that transcended generations.

The first time I took my wife Linda to a John Prine concert, he was playing at Bogarts in Cincinnati in 1982. We waited outback after the concert. It was only us and another person. He was genuinely surprised that we waited in the cold to talk to him. We talked for a longtime, smoked cigarettes with him and he gave Linda a kiss on her cheek when he left. We marveled at someone who had such a large presence in music was so humble in person. He was as down to earth when one-on-one as he was on stage. And that was his key to success. You saw the real John Prine on stage.

The last time Linda and I saw John Prine in concert, it was at the historic Birchmere in Northern Virginia. A guy sitting at the table next to us loudly asked John about the last time he played Billy the Bum.  Prine gave him a funny look and then gave it a shot. When he got stuck on the second verse, a woman in the front row offered the words. He looked down and said “Really? You sure?” She convinced him she was correct, and he finished the song.

Every concert ended with Lake Marie and every encore was the Kentucky-centric Paradise. He’d often introduce Paradise, a song he wrote for his father about a town in Muhlenberg County, with a line from his dad ordaining his son’s lineage as the last of a dying breed, “a true-blue Kentuckian.”

Like many Prine fans, I cried when I learned he had passed. I mourned like I had lost a member of my own family. Damn, maybe I had. Many of Prine’s songs dealt with death and heaven. Now I look at those songs to sooth my own grief.  Some make me laugh. Others bring more tears. And I suppose that’s his legacy. 

In his song Fish and Whistle, Prine left us with a simple prayer that is appropriate in these times:

Father forgive us for what we must do,

You forgive us and we’ll forgive You,

We’ll forgive each other until we both turn blue,

Then go whistle and fishin’ in Heaven.

Peace and love to all John Prime fans out there mourning right now. When the bars open, let’s all get together and sip a vodka and ginger ale. I’m not sure we’ll be able to find a cigarette that’s nine miles long.

Oh, baby. We gotta’ go now.

-Rick Robinson

Photo: John Prine (via Wiki Commons/Ron Baker)