A few years ago, my wife, Amanda, was touring in Scandinavia with John Prine, and when they arrived in Sweden, she saw him write “songwriter” on his customs form as his occupation. “When did you decide that it was OK to write ‘songwriter’ on these forms?” she asked him. “Today,” he told her. “I usually put dancer.”
John was not a dancer. He was a songwriter and one of the best who ever lived, but he did love to dance. He danced around his house in Nashville with his wife, Fiona, danced in the driver’s seat of his beloved Cadillac and danced offstage every night, twirling an imaginary pocket watch. Once, while performing onstage with John, I noticed him glance down past his Italian driving shoes to check the digital clock on the floor, and he saw me notice. He leaned in and whispered, “I wish we had more time.”
When John developed squamous cell cancer on his neck in 1998, his doctor told him he might never be able to sing again. John told him, “Doc, you’ve never heard me sing.”
He didn’t consider himself to be much of a singer; his honest delivery had always been what mattered most. Cancer and the subsequent treatments left John with a low whisper of a singing voice, but one that, if anything, aligned even more perfectly with the hard-won wisdom of the characters he created.
John was in his early 20s when he wrote “Hello in There” from the perspective of an old man sharing an empty nest with his lonely wife. Hearing him sing the song after decades of hard living and surviving numerous illnesses brought new meaning to the lyrics, now delivered by a man who had caught up with the character he created. John always said when he grew up, he wanted to be an old person.
John was known for his ability to tell stories that related universal emotions through the lens of his gigantic imagination. He constructed what Bob Dylan called “Midwestern mind trips” from the tedium of the everyday, and he was a master at concealing the work involved. His songs sounded like they’d been easy to write, like they’d just fallen out of his mind like magic. He was praised for his dry humor and loved for his kindness and generosity.
John had the courage to write plainly about the darkest aspects of the American experience in songs such as “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; “Paradise,” about the devastating effects of strip mining on a Kentucky town; and “The Great Compromise,” about his disillusionment with his country. Among his peers in the legendary Nashville songwriting community of the 1980s, his songs were the gold standard.
Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs such as “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-age woman — but he kept the first-person point of view.
He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, “No, you’re not.” Then a light bulb went off, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.
John always got the details right. If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest mirror of anyone I have ever known. Sometimes it seemed like he had a window, and he would climb right through.
After John faced a second bout with cancer in 2013, it seemed as though he was playing in extra innings — but he made the most of every bit of it. When Amanda — a fiddler and one of John’s favorite people — and I went into the studio to play and sing on his final album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness,” we were amazed by the beauty of the songs he’d written after more than 50 years of writing music. John was still razor sharp and he still had a story to tell. On the subsequent tour, he played to the biggest audiences he’d ever drawn. He turned 72 that year.
But John’s work wasn’t just about his own music. In 1984, he and his longtime manager Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein started the independent record label Oh Boy Records. In the mid-’80s the major labels seemed like the only game in town, but Oh Boy succeeded against the odds. It released John’s albums along with records by Kris Kristofferson, Dan Reeder and Todd Snider, and they’re still finding new talent and operating with their artists’ best interests in mind. He was a mentor to me and to my wife, who even helped him work on his songs sometimes, in between playing pranks on him while they were on tour. John saw her as a brilliant songwriter in her own right, and if John said you were a great songwriter, you knew it was true.
And there was more to John’s life than music. John and Fiona Prine had a beautiful relationship, loving and balanced and kind. Fiona understood John better than anyone else. After Amanda and I were married, Amanda started asking all the couples we knew, “What’s the secret to staying together?” John and Fiona gave the same answer, and it was the best one we’ve heard so far: Stay vulnerable. John remained vulnerable in love and in his work. He never played it safe.
When I was a baby, my 17-year-old mother would lay me on a quilt on the floor of our trailer in Alabama and play John Prine albums on the stereo. Forty years later, my daughter would call him Uncle John as he bounced her on his knee. My wife and I would sing his songs with him in old theaters or sometimes in his living room. In the summer, we’d all eat hot dogs with our feet dangling in his swimming pool. Now he’s gone and my heart is broken.
This week, John Prine danced off this stage and onto the next one, and I like to think he’s somewhere sharing a song and a cocktail with all the friends he outlived.
Jason Isbell is a singer and a songwriter.