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Remembering John Prine, the ultimate Midwestern songwriter, and his Omaha connections

Remembering John Prine, the ultimate Midwestern songwriter, and his Omaha connections

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John Prine performed at Omaha’s Orpheum Theater in 2018.

I knew John Prine’s music before I knew there was a person named John Prine.

Perhaps you were aware of Prine’s songs — “Sam Stone” or “Hello In There” or any of the dozens of others. But it’s just as likely you better knew the heartbreaker “Angel From Montgomery” by Bonnie Raitt, or the classic barroom anthem “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” by David Allan Coe.

Along with “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” which appeared on Prine’s third album but which he later recorded with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a cast of all-star country and Americana stars, those were the songs I knew best because my dad used to play them constantly on the tape deck in his Suburban.

It was only later that I discovered the rest of Prine’s catalog: “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round,” “Lake Marie,” “Sam Stone,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Angel From Montgomery” and countless other gems.

Prine is one of the best American songwriters of all time, and losing him to COVID-19 at age 73 feels like a great tragedy.

At least Prine is now in heaven sipping a cocktail of vodka and ginger ale, smoking a cigarette that’s nine miles long or forming a rock band with his old pals Steve Goodman and Johnny Cash, as he wrote in “When I Get to Heaven.”

Prine had an uncanny songwriting ability: Taking the big ideas and breaking them down into plainspoken words, which were sometimes heartbreaking and frequently very funny. “She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol.” “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” “We lost Davy in the Korean War and I still don’t know what for.” “We found ourselves in Canada trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish. Whatever came first.”

Hearing his words, you instantly understand them. If you’re like me, you’d simultaneously wonder how someone could frame whatever thing he was singing about so perfectly.

Prine was a songwriter’s songwriter, a guy admired by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and covered by George Strait, Carly Simon, Don Williams, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins and many, many more.

Dylan called Prine’s songs, “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”

As folk singers often do, Prine used Omaha (and Lincoln, too) in his lyrics to give his songs a sense of place, but Prine, originally from Illinois, had no major connection to Omaha.

That said, one of Prine’s biggest fans is Conor Oberst, the Omaha-born singer-songwriter who became famous for fronting Bright Eyes. Listen closely, and Oberst’s lyricism is steeped in Prine’s influence.

I found out later that Prine was also a huge fan of Oberst.

“I was an early fan of his,” Prine told me once. “I bought his first two or three records.”

They played together several times, and Oberst covered “Wedding Day in Funeralville” for an all-star tribute record. When Prine came to Omaha in 2018, it was because of Oberst. He and some other friends booked Prine at the Orpheum Theater.

That will forever be one of my most memorable concert experiences. Oberst joined him for “Way Down,” “All the Best” and “Paradise,” and they traded verses and sang the choruses together.

That night, Prine played all the songs I would have ever wanted to hear, but it was his version of “Lake Marie” that had everyone in the audience completely under his spell. I was, admittedly, rushing to write my review in the middle of the song. But I put my phone down as Prine and his band jammed through it. One by one, fans stood to cheer and shout the words. As the song closed with its breezy guitar riff, Prine ditched his guitar and danced offstage as the audience howled for him.

It was something to see.

Before that show, I got to interview Prine. It was one of those opportunities that you wait your whole career to get, and reading it back now, I like to think it went pretty well.

I asked him about a lot, especially what turned out to be his final album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” It was a great Prine album and a great send-up that featured a host of new Americana musicians — Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, among others — playing songs with an idol.

But I also talked about the classics, especially “Angel From Montgomery.” It is my favorite song of all time, and I had to ask: How was a guy in his 20s, then still somewhat new to songwriting, able to write a timeless song about the typically middle-aged notion of feeling a hell of a lot older than you are?

“I didn’t know any better,” Prine told me.

It was a typical, and perfect, Prine-ian sort of answer. He continued: “If I had known you weren’t supposed to write about stuff that young, I probably wouldn’t have.”

Losing Prine now hurts all the more, considering the other things he overcame in his life.

Prine beat cancer twice, once undergoing surgery and radiation for neck cancer, the treatment damaging his vocal cords and giving him a distinctive rasp. But he was back on tour again within a couple of years. Later, he had part of his lung removed and, once again, he was back to touring and writing songs shortly after.

It is sad that, after all that, he’s gone.

But at least we have his songs. They’ll always be there. Timeless, just as they always were.

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Reporter - Entertainment/music/concert

Kevin Coffey is the music critic and entertainment reporter, covering music, movies, video games, comic books and lots more. Follow him on Twitter @owhmusicguy. Phone: 402-444-1557.

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