On My Mind: Sing Me To Sleep, John Prine

Apr 9, 2020

Music has gotten me through a lot of these virus nights.

There are three of us in the house and we have different tastes, so I don’t blast anything on the stereo – I don’t think my mother-in-law would appreciate Mastodon.

So I listen late, on headphones. And over the past week these moments that were meant to soothe have turned into one long memorial service for musicians I love.

Last week it started with Adam Schlesinger, of the great rock band Fountains of Wayne. Then, even worse, Bill Withers: one of the great singer/songwriters there ever was.

And now, John Prine.

I paid special attention to Prine over the years because he had the same kind of cancer I did – squamous cell carcinoma. He had it in his neck; I had it in my voice box. We both had surgery and radiation, and it changed both our voices. In some ways his became deeper and richer. It made me feel good to hear that he could still sing. But always, more than anything, he was one of America’s greatest writers.

John Prine wrote about dopesick vets and old people wasting away in nursing homes. He wrote about a town called Paradise that the coal trains hauled away. He wrote about a lover who likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs.

He spent his career painting portraits of ordinary complicated people living ordinary complicated lives. Which are the lives we’re all living right now.

Famous people like John Prine are going to die from the virus, and there will be more of them, I’m sure. But the ones that will hit hardest are the regular people, the neighbor down the street, the cousin you used to see at family reunions, the crush you kissed behind the stands at the high-school football game.

I feel lucky beyond words that I have not had to grieve for anyone like that just yet. Right now, for me, John Prine stands for them, because he wrote about them and sang about them.

A couple of years ago he wrote a song called “When I Get to Heaven.” It’s about all the things he intended to do when he made it up there – first off, drink a vodka and ginger ale, and smoke a cigarette nine miles long.

Maybe this virus has you thinking more than usual about what you’d do when your time comes. I plan on looking up my mom and dad, and a few dear friends, and my old dog, Fred. And then, once we’ve caught up a bit, maybe we’ll check the celestial concert calendar, and find out what night John Prine is playing.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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