By Jake Dromgoole
I was on a mission. After having discovered the music of the artist known all over the world as Bon Iver, I was determined to track down anything and everything associated with that musician. While scouring through iTunes one night, I found a song released under the musicians given name, Justin Vernon. The song, “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow),” was included on a 2010 compilation titled Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine. The song, a ballad based on the songwriter’s experience of witnessing the death of a fellow youngster while shoveling snow one morning, resonated with me as a rudderless twenty-something. Thus, it began my long journey of discovering an artist who would eventually go on to become one of my all-time favorites: Mr. John Prine.
Born 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, John Prine (1946 – 2020) began playing music early in life. After serving five years in the army as a result of the Vietnam draft, Prine returned to Maywood where he worked as a mailman. It was while working on his delivery routes that Prine’s natural gift for storytelling flourished. Taking songs like “Hello in There,” and “Angel From Montgomery,” the singing mailman (as he would come to be known) became part of Chicago’s Folk Revival. It wasn’t long before Prine caught the ear of legendary Texan-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who invited the songwriter to open for him at a gig in New York. Among those in attendance was Jerry Wexler, one of the heads of the iconic record label Atlantic Records, who soon after, signed Prine to his label.
1971’s John Prine and 1972’s Diamonds in the Rough (both on Atlantic Records) established Prine as a premier songwriter, one with the uncanny ability of capturing the human journey with utmost ease. His songs were at times funny (take for instance “Spanish Pipedream,” wherein the songwriter sings about the merits of blowing up one’s tv), and thought provoking (like “Sam Stone,” which tells the tragic story of a soldier returning home a changed man after fighting in Vietnam).
As time went on, Prine continued to write and produce albums (many on his own label, Oh Boy Records) that established the genre known today as Americana. With his blending of everyman-poetry, humor, folk-style songwriting and country instrumentation, the artist helped forge a new sound that was all his own. With an unrefined, almost spoken singing voice, his songs felt as if they were being communicated by an old friend, wise beyond his years.
At the time of this writing, John Prine had been gone for almost a week. Since that sad day, there has been an outpouring of love for the artist. Friends and admirers ranging from Americana heroes Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, to legendary performers like Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen voiced their love for the songwriter through statements and covers of his songs. It’s taken me a week to compose my thoughts on this monumental loss and it still feels surreal. I’ve returned to many of Prine’s albums and have discovered many songs that I may have missed on first listen. “Way Down,” off of 1975’s Common Sense, “Blue Umbrella,” from 1973’s Sweet Revenge and “Christmas in Prison” from the same album are standouts for me.
While it is heartbreaking to see one of our greatest songwriters leave us, I imagine Prine wouldn’t have wanted us to dwell on our sadness for too long. In many of his most well-known songs, he reflected on his own passing. “Please Don’t Bury Me,” and “When I Get to Heaven” are just two examples of Prine’s humorous outlook on the idea of death. As the artist would say, “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.”
Eight years after first hearing “Chain of Sorrow,” I had the extremely fortunate opportunity to see Prine perform live in Dallas. Making my usual stop at the merch table before finding my seat, I was delighted to find a lapel pin that depicted the artist’s portrait from the Chain of Sorrow album imposed on a large orange. I made my purchase and quickly found my seat. As the artist performed “Chain” to the hushed auditorium, I sang the words to myself underneath my breath; my own personal duet with my hero. I now wear that pin on the breast pocket of my favorite denim jacket, a reminder not to fall victim to my very own chain of sorrow.
Thank you John.
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