John Prine loved Christmas. When he recorded what would be his final studio album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, he dragged a lit-up Christmas tree that he kept in his office year-round to the recording studio in the middle of July. “I don’t like to see Christmas trees torn down,” he said. When he took his family to see the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City years ago, Prine “cried when Santa came out,” his wife recalled in 2016. “The colors, the lights, the idea of family, togetherness, bestowing gifts. It means a lot to him.”
John Prine meant a lot to us. He was the Christmas tree we never wanted to see torn down. But Tuesday, at the age of 73, the songwriter died of complications related to COVID-19. Our hearts are broken and our windows are dirty. Christmas days seem to have come and gone.
Ever since he wrote “Hello in There” as a 24-year-old in 1971, Prine has been America’s most beloved storyteller, sporting a grin with so much love that it could not hide. For 50 years, he converted his stage into front-porch storytime, offering three-or-four chord country-folk tales — some real, some imagined, usually both — with impossibly adult verses for the grown men and women alongside nursery-rhyme choruses for their children.
“Some people told me it was the only thing that their family did as a family,” Prine once said of his music. “It would’ve been nice to be like the other boys and girls and have a hit.”
Unfit for pop, rock, or country, Prine decided to create his own universe of hits, a big old goofy universe where songs about Midwestern child actors, drug-addled veterans, lonesome unwed mothers, and lovebirds who like their eggs all runny could fill a couple thousand seats with families cry-laughing along to every word in venues across the country.
Critics were always tempted to try to elevate Prine’s art, comparing his work to literary predecessors like Twain and Proust and his most serious musical contemporaries. After Prine was pegged as a “New Dylan” upon the release of his self-titled 1971 debut, the singer returned with Diamonds in the Rough, his uncharacteristically moody second album whose darkest moments made “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” feel like bubblegum pop. When Prine tries to tell a “joke” on the record, it goes like this: “Two men were standing upon a bridge/One jumped and screamed, “You lose!’”
But hopelessness, despair, and nihilism, those were words Prine seldom used. His next album, 1973’s Sweet Revenge, set the tone for his next 45 years of record making, crystallizing his Midwestern folk-zen. You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t. On that record, death could be a burlesque farce (“Please Don’t Bury Me”) or it could be cause for deep grief (“Mexican Home”), but never again mere blackness. Instead, Prine’s music, stained with the tears and tragedies of adulthood, always made its way back toward compassion and grace, with an aw-shucks smile. Prine’s songs were the sun shining through the window in the second verse of “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round,” thawing out the misery and despair of anyone at risk of freezing themselves to death in their own proverbial bathtubs.
If life was a bruised orange, Prine was going to show you what a sweet and juicy orange it was all the same. He spent the 1970s and 80s going fishing in heaven, taking surrealist family road trips to the bottom of a bottomless lake, wandering down streets he used to wander. “Oh, my stars! My Linda’s gone to Mars,” he sang as his second marriage crumbled all around him. “Well, I wonder if she’d bring me something home.” Bestowing gifts; it meant a lot to him.
Prine never could stop thinking about Christmas, and on his 1991 mid-career masterpiece The Missing Years, he decided to write about it. That record found Prine in the wake of a divorce and on the horizon of new love, having just met his third wife, Fiona Prine. Each song found him screaming with life. “Take a look at my heart!” he shouted at one point, gleefully swimming in his own ocean of mixed-up emotion. On the album cover, he’s leaning on a boulder in an open field, grinning like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. “Life is a blessin’,” he sang, “a delicatessen.”
Prine didn’t write that line, somehow. Keith Sykes, his longtime collaborator and co-writer on the song, “You Got Gold,” did. “People from the get-go, they went, ‘Oh, that is so John Prine,'” Prine said years later. “I would tell Keith, ‘You’re starting to write like this guy John Prine!'”
Over the next 30 years, an entire generation of singer-songwriters — from Jason Isbell to Justin Vernon to Maggie Rogers to Miranda Lambert to Kurt Vile to Kacey Musgraves to Taylor Goldsmith to Margo Price — became artists by starting to write like this guy John Prine.
Prine watched it all with amusement and grace. In his fifties and sixties, he’d deliver a superb album, on par with any of his earlier records, once every seven or eight years. His wonder at the world around him only sharpened as he grew older, resisting the trappings of a self-serious aging troubadour. “Ooo-ooo, A-ha!” he sang in 2005. “I’m taking a walk!”
“I think I kind of write from a kid’s perspective,” Prine once said. “Maybe because I trust that, as opposed to whatever perspective you develop as an adult.”
Prine’s late-career adoration earned him the honor to become a kid again. In his later years, he skipped and danced himself off-stage each night. He shared birthday cake after gigs with his band. He wore a sock-monkey onesie.
At his second-to-last show, in Oslo this past February, Prine sang about Christmas trees and snowmen. He sang about his own grandfather, about sitting on a park bench kissing a girl with the black hair, and about how he’s going to reunite with his late mama’s sisters when he arrives in heaven one day.
At one point in Oslo, his band left the stage, and Prine performed one of his new songs by himself, the one about how summer’s end had come faster than we wanted. “I can see it snowin,’” he sang out to the silent theater.
Summer was over, he was saying, but that meant Christmas was only a few months away.