By Jim Magdefrau
Hamilton Hall. Iowa State. In the middle of the building is the darkroom, where many of us journalists learned the basics of darkroom work. In the background we heard the songs of plain-sounding artist over the darkroom stereo. Professor Johnson enjoyed chatting with us and telling all he knew about John Prine. I heard of him a few times. One of those “New Dylan” artists. He played it every day.
It sunk in as I listened to the first side of his debut album. This was no “New Dylan.” Bob was still “Dylan.” This was John Prine. It didn’t take long for me to sneak over to Co-op Records and get his first album.
On one side, Prine referenced insurance salesmen, the Korean War, Vietnam, heroin addiction, evils of strip mining, loneliness, rodeos, Jesus, Buddha and Quaker Oats. Not your average songwriter. In the times of disco, people stopped by the room to hear a few verses of a Prine song, asking what who the heck that is. Soon, they’d be borrowing the records. Their lives would not be the same.
For over four decades, college friends, nephew, myself and others made a point to hear John when he was anywhere near, from Lincoln, NE to Kansas City, MO to Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. He teamed up with Billy Lee Riley for some rockabilly, Leo Kottke, Nanci Griffith, Iris Dement, Arlo Guthrie, and most important, Steve Goodman in the shows we saw. With our friends at Roots N Blues, he was accompanied by Margo Price, and most important, Emmylou Harris.
Songs were no-nonsense, even his nonsense and fun novelty songs. He got straight to the point.
Each concert was like a visit with a friend, and each new album was like a letter. Everything fit like an old pair of sneakers.
His songs stick with you. He made sense out of a confusing and sometimes sad world, with a few chords, wry smile and friendly and plain voice. If Mark Twain played guitar.
I’ve written a lot about the concerts. Goodman glanced back stage between songs to see when John was showing up, then did one more song. John showed up with a huge grin. John joked with the sign language interpreter. The last time we saw him, he began his signature song, “Hello in There,” with the words, “John and Linda live in Omaha,” then quickly realized he missed a line. He grinned, shrugged and started over. Later, he continued to strum one chord of his three-chord songs, laughed and said, “I think I swallowed a bug.” Nothing rattled him.
He died from complications related to corona virus. It’s a shame this took John. It’s a shame it takes anybody. The same day I heard the news, I posted an obituary for an elderly local person who moved into a local small town, became immediately involved and even served on city council. He is missed just as much as John is.
John helped us grin when it was hard to.
The Missouri music festival where John played featured an open mic jam. Musicians sat on hay bales on a wagon. After helping with a few songs, one of the musicians looked at me and observed, “You look like somebody who knows John Prine.” I grinned. “Paradise” was the next song. Mandatory.
Anywhere there’s a campfire, a guitar and friends, someone is going to ask, “Do you know any Prine?” That’s where John lives on.