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John Prine, Nashville's Brilliant Neighbor

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Neilson Hubbard
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John Prine and wife Fiona at the release party for The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018.

There is a pall of sadness over Middle Tennessee as we reel with the news that our beloved John Prine has died. You see, John Prine was one of us. We could easily imagine him sharing a glass of sweet tea over supper with us. While we peered up at the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan on their pedestals or a distant stage, John was always right there, standing beside us.

While Johnny Cash belonged to the world, John Prine remained our neighbor, no matter how many awards he received or miles he traveled to perform. John was the poet of the people, a man who simply and beautifully stated profound truths, usually with a shot of humor. And often, the very people he was skewering in song sang right along, missing the subtleties that were directed at them. He was in on the joke, because he was the one who wrote it.

John was the anti-celebrity. There was nothing fancy about him; he knew who he was, or as he wrote in Dear Abby, “You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.”  He was a man who liked Archie comic books, hot dogs with mustard (normal mustard, not “weird” mustard), and his 1977 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. He recently confided to The New York Times, “I hate to admit it to my wife, but I only wear two outfits on the road, and then a third one during the day, but I carry about 20.”

There was no entourage or separation between John and anyone else. He was a frequent figure around town, often by himself, saying hey to people wherever he went. It seems almost everyone I know has a John Prine story, many of which were set at Arnold’s, a down-home meat-and-three, or in the pick-up line at his kids’ school. So many people saw him pushing a cart in Kroger that it’s a wonder he didn’t weigh 300 pounds. He slowly ambled in and out of stores and restaurants, never in a hurry. If someone said hello, he would respond as if speaking to a friend, even if he didn’t recognize the face. This was his home, and we were his neighbors.

Of course, this ability to stay grounded in the real world was one of the keys to his brilliance. Whether it was singing about an Alabama wife fantasizing about a release from her bad marriage or a war veteran drowning his trauma in morphine, he zeroed in to the core of the issues poignantly and powerfully. He understood the plight of those who had little power over their lives, whether they were government workers, country folk, military men (like him) or the elderly. Even if we hadn’t been in those specific situations, we recognized the feelings and were grateful to John for giving them the words that had eluded us.

All I needed to know about John was that he had the good sense to marry Fiona Whelan, one of the loveliest and most impressive women I have known. If he was worthy of her love, then there wasn’t a finer man anywhere. They were crazy about each other and I remember how he would patiently wait as she chatted with friends that they bumped into while running around town.

I fondly remember seeing Fiona at an event about a month before the release of his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness. She said she would have time to get together in about two months, after the album launch would subside. That still makes me chuckle, because neither one knew what would happen when they unveiled that masterpiece to the world.

His world blew up after the album was released and earned the only Billboard Top 5 placement of his career. The reviews were stellar and interview requests began stacking up. He had never been hotter in his career!  He was named Artist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Honors. He won Album of the Year as well as Song of the Year for “Summer’s End,” which he co-wrote with Pat McLaughlin.

Last year, the two-time Grammy winner, who was up for three Grammy nominations for the Tree album, was honored by a star-studded pre-Grammy tribute at the legendary Troubadour in Los Angeles hosted by the Americana Music Association and MTSU. Earlier this year, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which meant he had to sit through the Grammys in nice clothes. Legend has it that John’s favorite way to watch the show was from a nearby hotel room after he had put in his obligatory appearance.

Like many of his fans, I am so grateful that John was around to receive these accolades. While all of that praise may have made him uncomfortable at times, I am glad that he was able to see just a glimpse of what he meant to the world.

I’m gonna miss seeing John around town. He was a national treasure, but he was also a beloved community member. Bumping into him made me feel special and a little bit smarter, as if by recognizing his gifts, a little of his brilliance rubbed off on me. Prine represented the best of America and he inspired us to be better people. He could describe the worst of our country and human nature in achingly accurate detail. As long as John was there to explore the human condition and poignantly describes its weaknesses and failures, there was hope for improvement. He was our beacon and conscience.

And for me, that hope remains because what John Prine leaves behind is a master class in humanity, a lesson in offering empathy and compassion to those who need it and holding those accountable who are ruining the environment and lives in the name of profit and power. We just need to listen to his music to allow us to look at the world through the Prine Perspective, the lenses that see the world in all its rich tapestry of detail and emotion. Now that’s something we can hold onto.  

Beverly Keel is Dean of  MTSU's College of Media and Entertainment.

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