John Prine Always Found the Right Words

He wrote about what was there, but also what wasn’t there.

John Prine
Tom Hill / WireImage / Getty

I have never been on the porch that John Prine sings about in “My Mexican Home,” but I feel like I could tell you about it. How it smells in the rain and how I’d get splinters when I’d walk on it barefoot. That fan in the window has a cracked nob. When you set it all the way to three, it rattles and squeaks like a honeymoon couple.

This is what happens with a John Prine song. It works its way into your head until it feels like your own memory.

“In writing, there is always a right word,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “and every other than that is wrong.” If the right word can open a doorway to galaxies, Prine was a Buck Rogers.

For me, John Prine first started delivering these memories in 1991. My college girlfriend had been a waitress in a Tennessee club where he played. She had a bootleg cassette tape. It interfered with my education. If I put it on while I studied, I couldn’t study, because I kept listening to the words.

Did he really just rhyme Appalachia and Greyhound station? And then suddenly I was in the galaxy of that gray stone building, all alone.

He wrote about what was there, but also what wasn’t there. Have you ever asked someone a question, only to have them give you too many answers? All those answers convey more than they actually say: “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain / Actually everything is just about the same.”

Prine’s lyrics, too, conveyed more than the plain meaning of the words. When Lydia felt like “Sunday on a Saturday afternoon” I knew what that meant in my bones.

Or at least, I thought I did. Prine opened up galaxies, but left the exploration to us. “Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there,” he once wrote, an axiom that should be given to every writing student. He gave us room to roam around.

I married that college girlfriend, and John Prine’s music followed us into the nursery. “Bottomless Lake,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” (the happy enchilada story), “Paradise,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”—I sang them all to our children as I walked with them on my shoulder until their breathing got heavy and I could lay them down.

As the kids got older, I had to change the words to protect the innocent. My sharp-eared daughter would have asked: “Daddy, why does she have her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees?” (Dear Abby … ).

Last summer, I took one of those kids who was once on my shoulder and whose shoulder is now at about my ear to see John Prine at Wolftrap. And as Prine sang those songs that I had sung, I sat next to that college girlfriend, and sang those songs right back. Words may open up galaxies, but in that moment, John Prine bound my whole world.

Prine said he tells young songwriters to be careful of the songs they write, because they might become hits, and then they’ll have to sing them the rest of their life. There’s an extension of this: It is possible to write songs that will be with other people for the rest of their life. There’s the music you put on in your house, and there’s the kind of music in which you make your home.

Prine wrote the kind of music that makes a man utter declarations out loud into the world. A few years ago, before I’d ever met him, I tweeted: “Hey John Prine I hope someone has filled as many of your days with joy and sunshine as you have mine.”

I think that must have been true, or he couldn’t have said it all so well.