John Prine and the legacy of artistic work ethic

John Prine might have thought about writing a song at some point about a lucky fellow who records a number one hit but dies before he can hear it on the radio. Tongue-in-cheek irony and a deep reverence for our fragile human predicament seemed always to be at the heart of Prine’s songwriting. He appeared to be entirely in on this cosmic joke of ours, like Kurt Vonnegut writing with a perpetual smirk and a father’s love for even the most wayward among us, and no amount of bad luck or hard knocks took that away from him. His very last song was released weeks after his death from COVID-19, a spare and hauntingly beautiful lament called I Remember Everything, and it earned his first Billboard number one. Imagine that, a posthumous number one hit. That type of posthumous accomplishment, people close to him seem to be saying, would have earned a big smile from the former postman from Illinois.

I wish I had been able to catch John Prine performing live. He would be at the top of the list if someone were to ask me which artists I regret not seeing in concert. His Tree of Forgiveness tour was cut short of my city due to an urgent health issue. He’d already battled cancer twice by that point and learned to sing again following major surgery to his neck. It seemed unlikely he would be back out on the road, but there he was in the fall of 2019 touring across Europe and soaking up the long earned love of his people, the ones who always just got him and didn’t need any critics to tell them he was the real deal. And then, of course, he got sick, but he didn’t get better this time. Receiving the refund for his concert stop made it all seem so real and so sad.     

Listen to John Prine for any amount of time and you’ll probably end up thinking of him as that cool uncle who would come over and just hang out with you through all your ups and downs. He’d have the funny story, the smart aleck comment, the way of framing something that made you feel not so alone in your condition. That’s pure and awesome talent, and John Prine was born with buckets of it. But all the talent in the world is like water without a glass if discipline and practice aren’t also part of the artist’s make up. All those hours of lonely dedication to the pursuit of excellence, the effort made without any guarantee of success or acknowledgement. As Muhammad Ali said: “Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” John Prine was a heavyweight champion in the arena of words and songs and maybe even the art of life.

Besides all his great lyrics, those one-liners that make you smile every single time you hear them, I believe John left something even more powerful for every writer, poet and dreamer who will come after him: a brilliant example of artistic work ethic, integrity, humility and total dedication to your task at hand – the carving out and polishing of the next word, next line, verse or rhyme. That number one hit on Billboard was just a lot of karma and sweat catching up, an overnight sensation fifty years in the making.  

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to work at the level of a John Prine or an Annie Proulx, for that matter, but I do know how hard it can be to keep doing what you’re doing when everything and everyone around you seems intent on making you fold your hand. Critics can be cruel and jealous, as John so forgivingly recalled in his song When I Get To Heaven, and the business end of art can rip out hearts and souls quicker than any switch blade.

Life doesn’t stop for art’s sake; art occurs in spite of life and its unfathomable challenges, perhaps even because of it. People get sick. Marriages break up. Business systems crash and burn. The waters rise too high and pandemics come around to remind us we’re not even remotely in charge of the ebb and the flow. But still the artist works away, fighting against mortality and floods for all our sakes.  

The book you toiled over for two years is a magnificent flop that not even your friends bother to read … or it wins every award under the sun and gets turned into a rock musical (that people pay to live stream from the safety and comfort of their quarantine). The new album hits the charts right out of the gate … or joins a million others in a big cosmic bargain bin. Do you quit or do you keep going? How many ‘likes’ will it take to prove the value of your offering? Or do you, as the Irish crime writer Eoin McNamee once shared with me, forge ahead and “make your own weather”?

If you close your eyes and listen to John’s last song I think you’ll hear the answer loud and clear.

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