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John Prine: The Secrets Behind His Classic Songs

The legend opened up about his writing process in a series of deep conversations in recent years. As he battles COVID-19 and his family asks for love and support, here’s a guide to his greatest songs in his own words

John PrineJohn Prine


Back in 2016, John Prine was having trouble writing new songs. It had been more than a decade since his last album, 2005’s excellent Fair & Squareand the longer he waited to release a new one, the more anxious he felt. “One of the reasons I’m having such a difficult time is, I don’t wanna just sit down and write a little couplet that’s kind of witty, or something,” he said, sitting in his Nashville office. (He didn’t use the term “office” seriously — he didn’t consider his job work.) “I’ve done that, and I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to repeat myself. I got a really great bunch a people that like my songs and buy all the records, and I think they deserve is to get something really good, rather than something every couple a years just so they can.”

Two years later, Prine released The Tree of Forgiveness, one of the greatest late-career albums of all time. But his self-doubt that day proved just how seriously he still takes his craft, nearly 50 years into his career. His wife Fiona had to nudge him to write The Tree of Forgiveness, booking him a suite at the Omni near their house, bringing along four grocery bags full of lyrics he’d jotted down over the years. Prine strung together the majority of the album in four days.

Prine has been writing songs since he was 14, a skill that really took shape on his route as a mailman in suburban Illinois. They all pull from his life: 1971’s “Hello in There” was about the lonely people he met delivering newspapers. “Paradise” was about his parents’ beloved Kentucky hometown that was strip-mined beyond recognition. Prine tackles all these subjects with empathy, humor, simplicity, with an eye for “the in-between spaces” – moments people don’t talk about.

Our interview was for a 2017 feature tracing his journey, but there was a lot of great material that didn’t make the piece. It was the first of many future interviews with Prine, and the more recent songs here pull from those later interviews.

Prine is currently in a Nashville hospital suffering from Covid-19, and his family has asked for fans to their send love and support. It’s a good time to play John Prine music around the house. Here’s a guide to some highlights, with commentary from the man who wrote them. We also made a Spotify playlist.

“The Frying Pan” (1972)

When I was 14, I wrote two songs that ended up on Diamonds in the Rough ten years later. I wrote a song called “The Frying Pan,” which is modeled after Hank Williams. I’d perform the Hank Williams show for my dad in the sequence on the album. One song, Hank said, “This is about a poor fella who comes home and there’s nothing on the dinner table for him, and his wife’s left a note in the frying pan.” So I wrote a song called “The Frying Pan.” And the other one was called “Sour Grapes,” and that was my big, “Here’s my outlook on life,” that it all sounds like sour grapes, but it’s true. I found those two songs on a tape and the third song was “Twist and Shout.” I knew I didn’t write “Twist and Shout,” so these other two songs were my earliest writing.

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“Angel From Montgomery” (1971)

I wrote “Angel from Montgomery” from a woman’s perspective, only because nobody told me you weren’t supposed to. I thought that if you were a writer then you come up with a character, you should speak in first person, or whenever. I could say “she is lonely, or she doesn’t wash the pots and pans,” [but] you gotta write her from the person that you’re singing about, you know? When I had all that pointed out to me many years later, I thought, wow, ignorance is bliss as a writer, I think. A lot of women do “Angel From Montgomery” and it’s always interesting to hear. A lot of them I hear are doing Bonnie Raitt’s version. I always loved Bonnie, and Bonnie put her name on that song and she got it out there for the world to hear.

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“Hello in There” (1971)

I wrote “Hello in There” and a good part of “Sam Stone” on my mail route in my head. I always had an affinity for older people, partially because of my grandparents. I had a buddy when I was about 12, and he had a newspaper route, and he was making pretty good money, so he asked me if I could help him out a couple days a week and [we] would get it done in record time. And one of the places on the route was this Baptist old peoples’ home, and you had to deliver the newspapers to the individual rooms of the people. So we split the home up in half. After a while, I found out that some of the people were introducing you to their neighbors as if you were a nephew of theirs, or a grandson. They didn’t get many visitors, so they acted like you were coming to see them, not just bringing the newspaper to them. And that stuck with me. 

When I got around to writing “Hello in There,” it was directly because of “Across the Universe.” The first time I heard John Lennon sing that, he had a lot of reverb on his voice. And so I got to thinking about- I was probably high at the time – singing into a hollow log or something going: “Helloo, hellooo, is anybody in there? Helloo in there.” And it all came out of that idea, so I thought of “Hello in There.” I get this vision of older people and you’re right up in their face and you see em, but they almost look invisible. And you wonder if they’re perceiving any of that. I don’t know why I was able to write a song like that. I was 22 when I wrote that. 

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“Sam Stone” (1971)

There was a book came out around ’69 called Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and that started me thinking that I really like the idea of a broke-down radio. And I remember this old radio my dad had electric black tape all over it. He’d get WSM on a Saturday night listening to this old radio. And I had that in my mind when I had just gotten out of the Army. I got drafted on the same day as about five of my best buddies, and most of them went to Vietnam, and I got sent to Germany. 

It was [only] a 13 month tour for Vietnam, right? Some of the guys that weren’t my buddies that got sent to Germany with me, they would do their first three months and then they would volunteer for Vietnam. These guys figured out, “I’m gonna get home three months early if I go to Vietnam.” They came home early – in a box.

Just about everybody I knew got out around the same time, and those guys lives were changed forever, and some of them hadn’t even seen combat. One buddy told me it was just the silence of it all: you hear a bomb go off in the distance and then nothing. He said the enemy was everywhere, but nowhere. And then one night you’d be going to get a beer and a guy would get blown up by a mine crossing the field. So that would keep everybody on edge. 

And the drugs were powerful. They come back and they were not the same people. But all of that entered into when I wrote “Sam Stone,” I wanted to say something about veterans in general from that period. And there was a particular newspaper article about some soldiers’ return to San Francisco from Vietnam, and protestors were spitting on them. And I thought, “That’s fucked.”  They should be in Washington D.C. spitting on people if they wanted to – but not the soldiers.

I was trying to explain it in real plain terms, you know. A lot of guys did get hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something that would be that hopeless. And you know, I went right to “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” I said, “That’s pretty hopeless.”

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“Far From Me” (1971)

I was trying to outdo myself with each song I wrote. When I wrote “Far From Me,” which ended up on my first record, I really felt like I’d gotten a hang on what I wanted to do: writing like I pictured the song. I didn’t think about how I wanted to set it up, but I pictured it first and then filled in the picture, the way I could see how it went down between this guy and this waitress. “We used to laugh together / And we’d dance to any old song / Well, you know, she still laughs with me / But she waits just a second too long,” I was trying to write about the in-between spaces – the time in between the doors are getting slammed and sitting there having an argument, what is that little space in between? That’s kind of unexplainable. But you explain it with something that’s very plausible and something that happens. When people react to that, that’s the reward for me.

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“Donald and Lydia” (1971)

I based the structure of “Donald and Lydia” on an early Bob Dylan song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” And what I really liked about it was: three verses, and then there was a moral but to it, but the moral wasn’t, like, put into your face. It was like “now ain’t the time for your tears.” And the last one was “now is the time for your tears,” the fact that he [William Zanzinger] got off scot free and murdered this woman. I saw a young Bob Dylan on The Steve Allen Show sing that and it just really burned into my memory. 

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Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (1971)

This was my answer to “Fightin’ Side of Me.” I was delivering Reader’s Digest and they gave out free flag decals. And man, the next day on my route, they were everywhere. They were stuck on windows, front doors, the bumpers of their cars. These were all people who were just so ticked off by all the hippies and protestors, this was their way of saying, “Don’t fuck with my America.”

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Souvenirs” (1972)

I really looked up to my brother Doug. There was a carnival once, and I was a really small kid, and, and he got lost in the crowd. My parents thought that he’d been kidnapped or something, so they were frantic, looking for him, and the police at the carnival were looking for him, and I remember I was crying, and I thought my brother was gone forever, you know. And I had this small horse he’d won it for me at one of the stands. A small horse with red sparkles all over it, and I was holding it in my hand and I just kept thinking, “Oh, it’s all I’ve got left of him is this souvenir.” And later, I told him years after I wrote that song, “You know, that song’s about you … I kept coming up with that picture of me as a kid, and me thinking you were lost forever, you know.” And I’d always dedicate it to him. I sang it to him on his deathbed. It was just the emotion of that happening, and I put it into words so I could get over to somebody else how I felt that day, without explaining that it was about losing my brother. 

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“Christmas in Prison” (1973)

I sang in prison once in my life. Me and Steve Goodman were up in Minneapolis-St. Paul. We played in St. Paul, and the girl that ran the Guthrie Center up there said, “Would you guys stick around for a day and drive to Sandstone Prison?” which turned out to be a minimum security federal prison. We took Bonnie [Raitt] and of course, if you bring a woman into a men’s prison, she just got the catcalls and whistles. We’re walking across the yard of the prison with our guitars, and the whole yard is empty [except] there’s four guys having a cigarette. And one of them turns around and goes: “John! Hey!” One of my buddies from high school’s little brother was in for draft-dodging. The only time I’m ever in a prison, one of them personally knows me.

I like the whole thing about: “The search light in the big yard/Swings round with the gun / And spotlights the snowflakes / Like the dust in the sun.” I used to be transformed by that stuff when I was a kid. I’d watch the dust particles come floating through the window and land on the coffee table, and I imagined they were like planes landing on an aircraft carrier. To think that I could be that entranced by dust particles! It didn’t take much to please me when I was a kid. 

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“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” (1978)

My brother Dave, the one that taught me how to play guitar, he ended up marrying a preacher’s daughter. He had a job being the custodian of that church when he was dating her, and he passed the job on down to me when I was about 12. I was a pew duster. I’d wax the cross, dust the pews, and then mow the lawn, or, in the winter, shovel the snow, so the people didn’t bust their ass on the steps and sue the church for the same money that they gave to ’em. And I was going one morning, really early on Sunday morning, when things are really quiet out. If there was fresh-fallen snow, I’d have to get over to the church and shovel the walk before people started arriving for the first service, and the only people you’d see out were the news kids delivering the Sunday papers and altar boys going to report. 

One morning I was walking by this park, and there was a commuter train that ran from Chicago out to the suburbs, and an altar boy had gotten hit. He was walking down the tracks. God knows what was on his mind, and train just came up behind him and hit him. And all the sudden there was a bunch of mothers standing around, not knowing if it was their kid or not, ’cause they hadn’t identified him yet. When they found out whose kid it was, all the mothers were relieved, and also comforting the mother whose son it was. It was an odd mix of emotions.

I intersected it with what I was going through with a broken-up relationship. That’s why in the second verse it goes, “I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair.” I intersected it all, so I was the altar boy and I got hit by the train, and, like, the train of love hit me, it ran me over.

Years later, I was in Wisconsin playing, and I got a letter sitting backstage from the family. They were at the show and they recognized it was their son I was talking about. They had no idea I was present there the day that their son got hit by the train. I got to thinking after a while that when I write something and I stretch it out, but it’s based on a real thing, maybe it isn’t based on a real thing [anymore]. Maybe it’s just the emotion of it.

[Find It Here]

“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” (1978)

I found out that back in the Forties and Fifties, a lot of movie actors and actresses had to go on movie tours because there were no talk shows. They had to go on a regular tour and, you know, end up in Podunk, Iowa, taking questions from the audience about their movie just to promote things. I know from being a musician [laughs] that the road is a harsh mistress. So I’m sure the road claimed more than a couple actors and actresses.

When I wrote that one and “Jesus the Missing Years,” I was afraid to sing them for somebody else. I thought they were going to look at me and say, “You’ve done it. You’ve crossed the line. You need the straightjacket.” But if I let it sit for a couple weeks and it still affects me, it’s something I would like to hear somebody say, then I figure, my instinct is as good as a normal person. I would like to hear that somebody do that, so I just go ahead and jump into it. 

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“I Just Want to Dance With You” (1986)

That song paid for [my cancer surgery], or what the insurance didn’t pick up. When I was in MD Anderson after the surgery, I had to go back to do the radiation. I remember getting in my Rent-A-Car and turning on the radio and hearing, “I Just Want to Dance With You” is Number One on [the country chart.] That song had been around for 10 years. I’d put it on the album German Afternoons. Out of nowhere, it got pitched to George Strait, and bang, he took it to Number One [in 1998]. It was a big piece of coin. It couldn’t have come at a better time. We never had the blanket money-wise for that year; I’d missed working. George Strait paid for it.

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Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (1986)

That was definitely a breakthrough song for me. I wrote that song not caring if anybody ever heard it. It was that I got it down on paper. I got down what was kind of running my whole life at the time. It was this record that kept playing over and over; it was just something I had to get out of me. I didn’t know, or care, if anybody else could relate to that song. It turns out people relate to it in loads of different ways.

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“Everything is Cool” (1991)

I must have written “Everything is Cool” over a period of time. Because I remember we went to a [wedding] a friend of ours from San Francisco. And I remember, my friend, “Knocka,” he lives on a farm with goats up in the hills. And when he came to town, you’d never see him dressed up. He was dressed up that day. And this friend of ours asked him where he was from. And he said, “I’m from the valley of the unconcerned.” And I went, “Whoa… I gotta use that somewhere.” I couldn’t wait to put it in a song.

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“Lake Marie” (1995)

[Producer] Howie Epstein did not want that song on The Missing Years. He thought “Lake Marie” sounded like a song that Bob Dylan wrote: “Brownsville Girl” and that was the one album I never bought by Bob. Then all these years later, when we get a quote out of Dylan about my songs, it turns out “Lake Marie” is one of his favorite songs. 

I knew I wanted it to be a recitation and have kind of a semi-rock progression when you got to the chorus. I knew people liked to hear me talk, and they liked to hear the stories between the songs, so I thought I’d incorporate that in a song that rocked a little more.

The beginning had to seem like it came from a history book. I was in this little town of Woodstock, Illinois. There’s a little opera house we were playing.  We couldn’t afford our sound people, so we’re using the house sound guy, and I said, “Hey, isn’t Lake Marie around here?” And he goes, “Oh yeah, it’s about 18 miles down the road.” My little brother Billy was with me, and we used to go there as kids. I said, “Bill, let’s take a drive and go over and look at Lake Marie.” And they had a little library. We went in, and I asked the librarian, “Do you have any books, or any information on the history of this area?” She said, “No, but funny enough, a fellow is writing a book on the twin lakes,” and gave me his number. And he sent me a bunch of stuff, like a newspaper article about these two sisters [Elizabeth and Marie] that the lakes were named after. And that’s all I needed. I just needed to know that something like that actually kind of happened, and that’s how I began the song, about the Indians finding the two white girls and naming the lakes after them. And then bang, I went into a parallel relationship I’d had, and from there, a dream thing. I remember hanging out as teenagers in a carpark that was by a forest preserve, and all forest preserves to me look like places for future grisly murders. There was a series of murders in the Chicago area in the late fifties, early sixties, where there had never been it before. John Wayne Gacy was only about two miles from where I lived.

I’ve had a lot of people come up and think the guy killed the girl in the song because they get a divorce or something, and no, no, no. I said, look, love is a violent act. That’s why people get so distraught when it’s taken away from them, so that’s why I had that violence in there where they find these bodies in the car – it’s just like a relationship that just “slammed up against the banks of Lake Marie.” I was really happy with that song when I finished it, because it was totally a dream-like vision that I was able to harness into one song.

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“Space Monkey” (1997)

I wrote “Space Monkey” from a little blurb I saw, something about the Russians forgetting this astronaut. It wasn’t an animal, it was this astronaut they forgot about. Not for more than a couple of days, but they just moved on to something else in their new space program, and they brought him down and everything, but I thought, what if they didn’t? I wrote it with Peter Case. And Peter is a great guy. I can only co-write with somebody who’s got a sense of humor. I like to co-write with somebody I like to talk to. That way, if you don’t get a song out of it, then you’ve had a great afternoon together.

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“Some Humans Ain’t Human” (2005)

The song itself I really liked. The part I didn’t like was [when] I just directly took a straight shot at George Bush. And I thought, “Man this song is too good for that.” The rest of the song was too good, and to me, it ruined the song for me. 

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“Summer’s End” (2018)

Summer’s End” was a co-write, but by God, Pat McLaughlin and me, we seemed to be going to the same well. We just sat there almost slapping each other across the face with a line. I’d pull one out, Pat would pull one out, it’d be like we were sparring or something. We didn’t have to have any kind of discussion or argument about it. It just was out, you know. It either fit in or not, and we didn’t even have a subject we were writing about. That’s amazing to me because I thought I could only do that on my own. That I couldn’t do that with somebody else, that it wouldn’t become the same to me, it wouldn’t have the same effect on me. So it’s great to know that you can write something that means that much to you with somebody else; it’s not “music by” and “words by.” Nobody I ever wrote with does that.

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“The Lonesome Friends of Science” (2018)

I’ve been harboring this rant for years about the first time I read that scientists said “There is no Pluto. Pluto’s not a planet.” I said, “Get out, what do you mean that Pluto’s not a planet?” I had to memorize the planets in science class, and it took me forever to memorize them and learn how to spell ’em. And now they tell me it’s not a planet … They demote it to a star, like a star is not a good thing? And then five years later go, “OK it’s a dwarf planet,” on top of it. Talk about insult to injury. Like they stripped the guy of his planet uniform, make him a star, and demote him a dwarf planet. I mean, leave the guy alone!

[Find It Here]

In This Article: John Prine, long reads, RSX


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