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John Thomson: Songs from a special mailman

Other Voices
John Thomson

Nearly half a century ago, I lay on my back in a “dazed” mental state at a party in college. Out of the ether, it seemed, came a nasally and twangy voice singing simple melodies, but telling tragic and funny stories with a kind of poignancy I’d never heard before.

“Wow! Who is this?” I shouted. “It’s a guy named John Prine,” somebody said.

On April 7, the legendary singer-songwriter died in Nashville at the age of 73 from complications from the coronavirus. Weeks before I knew he was ill, I’d traveled back in time with my guitar and sang many of the songs I’d heard that night in college, songs like “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” and “Paradise.” My intimate reconnection to Prine’s music just before his unforeseen death, reinforced my conviction that there are forces in this world beyond what we can see and smell and touch.

John Prine was something special. Rolling Stone called him the “Mark Twain of American songwriting.” While he won Grammys and had a very loyal following over the years, he wasn’t as famous as his song-writing peer (and admirer) Bob Dylan. I don’t know if this is a shame or not. Perhaps broader stardom might have diluted his work. It’s hard to say, and I think Prine was quite satisfied with his stature in the music world.

Maybe more than ever we need to listen to songs with depth and wisdom and yet laugh out loud humor …

But still, during these hard times, bringing attention to what this gifted songwriter and storyteller left us might be edifying for those not familiar with his craft. Maybe more than ever we need to listen to songs with depth and wisdom and yet laugh out loud humor: songs about the loneliness of old people, the ruination of a coal-mined landscape in Kentucky, a man who travels in his mind to escape a nagging wife, a carpenter grandfather who chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, a returned wedding ring, a smile obtained illegally, the injustice of Plato’s demotion from planet status, an old woman recounting the lost love of a rodeo rider, how a flag decal won’t get you into heaven, the missing years of Jesus, a topless waitress who had something up her sleeve, and the tragedy of a wounded war veteran’s drug addiction.

On more than one occasion, John Prine revealed that the ideas and words for many of his early songs came to him when he was a mailman delivering mail in Maywood, Illinois. “There wasn’t much else to think about,” he has said, to paraphrase. Still, those early works made it onto the small stages in small clubs in Chicago, where one night he was heard by an awestruck Kris Kristofferson. Then the songs made it onto that album I heard in college.

I sometimes wonder if Prine had any idea what he would really deliver someday to America when he was walking through the neighborhoods in Maywood and thumbing through the bills and junk mail of strangers, his mind escaping into its own creative universe. I don’t know. I have also stopped trying to figure out how great writers like him can so poetically convey their wisdom and empathy to the rest of us.

I am only grateful for it. Rest in peace, John Prine.

John Thomson lives in Penn Valley.


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