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Tribute: John Prine Bumps Into The Savior

COVID-19 Editor's Pick Metro ATL

Tribute: John Prine Bumps Into The Savior

John Prine at MerleFest (2006). Photo by Ron Baker, obtained via Wikimedia Commons
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So John Prine opens his second album, Diamonds In The Rough, with a song detailing a chance encounter with the Messiah.

“Everybody” reveals a few priorities of Jesus Christ and how all individuals, including Himself, i.e. everybody, can best get through their days.

Prine’s narrator in “Everybody” is casually sailing in his boat when a visitor happens by, wanting to talk. A sympathetic ear will make things even better.

While out sailing on the ocean

While out sailing on the sea

I bumped into the Savior

And he said pardon me

I said “Jesus you look tired

He said “Jesus so do you

Won’t you sit down son 

“Cause I got some fat to chew” 

Jesus has plenty to say to his willing listener. In the breezy country-flavored tune, Prine sings of sitting “there for an hour or two, just eatin’ that gospel pie.” No doubt the Savior knew people could stand several servings of that “gospel pie.” He knew what went on in Vegas and He felt for what his “least of these” were having to deal with out of Washington, DC. People still had to deal with cowardly leaders, just as He did with the likes of Herod and Pontius Pilate.

Jesus could ruminate on the positive things that had occurred since His 33 years on earth: The age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance, the books by John Locke and Tom Paine. People still read His own words in the fifth chapter of Matthew, for Heaven’s sake, but there was still so much cruelty and such little caring. That guy in John Prine’s boat certainly seemed receptive. We return to Prine’s narrator:

Well he spoke to me of morality

Starvation, pain and sin 

Matter of fact the whole dang time

I only got a few words in

But I won’t squawk 

Let him talk

Hell, it’s been a long long time 

And any friend that’s been turned down

Is bound to be a friend of mine

“Everybody” compels assurance and pleasant reflection. Its loose and freewheeling ambiance is driven by the guitar-playing of David Bromberg and Steve Goodman, a friend who advised another friend, Kris Kristofferson, of just how great Prine’s songs were. Kristofferson was on a career-roll at the time as a singer-songwriter and an actor. What a good friend to have when another friend needs a boost.

One night in 1971, Goodman was serving as the opening act for Kristofferson at the Quiet Knight in Chicago. They bonded, and after their sets, along with Paul Anka — yes, that Paul Anka —  headed over to the Earl of Old Town to hear Goodman’s pal, John Prine. give an impromptu set. According to  Clay Eals’ sweeping biography of Goodman, Kristofferson was floored by Prine’s performance:

“He proceeded to just destroy us, song by song,” Kristofferson says. “…. and every one of those songs was great, like ‘Hello in There.” I felt like we were at something like when somebody might have stumbled upon Bob Dylan. John Prine just scalded my brain that night. He was the best damned songwriter I’d ever seen.” 

Kristofferson gave Prine enough time to chat over a beer and then asked him to sing those same songs again as well as any others he had written. A door was opened for Prine, just like the one Johnny Cash opened for Kristofferson a few years earlier. And just as Cash did for his debut album, Kristofferson wrote the liner notes for John Prine’s first LP, noting that although he was only 24, Prine “writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty.” He closed by thanking Prine’s label, Atlantic Records, “for making good things happen to someone who deserves it.”

Good things happened to John Prine for nearly 50 more years. Yes, there were, between 1998 and 2013, two serious bouts with cancer, but he came back strong after both and was back on the road, with songs from 22 albums to perform. Prine never had a hit album; he was too left of the mainstream. But he rarely offered a disappointing album. His own songs had resolve, vigor and well-placed dashes of humor. He brought the same qualities when covering songs by Chuck Berry, Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Don Everly and a heaping handful of other great composers.

Over the several days, after his wife revealed Prine was fighting the COVID-19 virus, there was the hope that even at 73 and struggling to hang in there, that he’d cheat death again. These are bad times for this country and the world at large. We need the wise and whimsical observations Prine has long offered to give us perspective.

When my wife Gena came downstairs last night to tell me John had lost his battle, I felt quiet and distracted. The guy who amused us with the story of the fellow in his boat hosting the Messiah has shuffled off the mortal coil. When you hang in there as long as some of us have, you say goodbye to many who delivered words of joy and wisdom. Some we lose are missed more than others — and the loss hits us sooner.

Ask Gena: she’ll tell you that hardly a week goes by that I don’t offer a few of Prine’s words to describe the latest bewildering matter. But a line or two from a song won’t cut it this time. We will want to consider and discuss his talents for a long time to come. So here I sit, like many John Prine fans, thinking on the words that Prine gave Jesus: “Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.”

– Jeff Cochran is the current ad sales director for Decaturish.com. In the ’70s he wrote for The Great Speckled Bird, Creative Loafing and The Atlanta Gazette. From the mid ’70s until the early ’80s, he was the Regional Advertising Director for Peaches Records and Tapes. In 1981 he began a 27-year career in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Since then he has served as the Advertising Director at Decaturish. He is also a contributing editor to Like the Dew and Beatlefan magazine.

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