Few artists loved John Prine more than Iris DeMent. The Arkansas singer-songwriter was one of the very first that Prine took under his wing when DeMent was an emerging artist nearly 30 years ago. When she released her first album in 1992, he wrote liner notes about how her music made him cry into a skillet of pork chops. “DeMent starts singing about ‘Mama’s Opry,’” Prine wrote. “And being the sentimental fellow I am, I got a lump in my throat and a tear fell from my eyes into the hot oil.”
Of course, DeMent and Prine were best known for “In Spite of Ourselves,” their eternal duet about two offbeat lovebirds. But over the past three decades, Prine and DeMent were also close friends — she’d stay at the Prines’ Nashville home as a guest when she’d stop through town. Here, she pays tribute to her mentor, collaborator, and dear friend.
Like so many of you, I am deeply saddened by the passing of John Prine. It is my prayer that all the love he gave to this world will be returned ten-fold to his family — the ones he cherished the most — and that love will help sustain them through their grief.
Having known John for some 30 years now, a flood of memories are swirling around in my head. And as John had a way of making even the most mundane seem special, any one of those memories would be justified in retelling, but for now, the quality about John that keeps coming to the forefront of my mind might best be summed up by something Nelson Mandela once said: “It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”
We all know that John ennobled the characters in his songs. Any of us lucky enough to have seen one of his shows knows he also did this for his audience. I, for one, happen to know he did it at truck stops and Dairy Queens, too. John was one of the all-time great ennoblers of others.
Some years ago, I placed a call to my now dear friend Reverend Samuel E. Mann and I told him I wanted to join his church, but that I did not take the Bible literally and I didn’t want to say I believed a bunch of things I didn’t so I could be part of a group. To which, Sam replied: “We do not believe in a magic Jesus. Jesus lived his life loving and caring for ‘the least of these’ — that was the miracle. And it was enough!”
John Prine was, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters this world will ever know. Many people more qualified than me have written about why that is. And many more will follow. Greatest or not, here’s what it comes down to for me and here’s why he rests on my heart’s mountain top: Because he cared enough to look — at me, you, all of us — until he saw what was noble, and then he wrapped us up in melodies and sung us back to ourselves.
That was the miracle of John Prine. And it was enough.