A man in search of a pint found one in an Irish establishment in Midtown. He was short and everyday, save for his spikes of gray-white hair and a sizable indentation in his neck — the mark of something endured. He looked like a guy who’d been around, and was grateful to still be.
Sipping his Guinness, he studied the surrounding circus with the half-smile of a child who had slipped under the tent flap to find a vacant ringside seat. Another patron recognized him and approached with unnecessary trepidation to share a text message received the day before from his 17-year-old son in Virginia.
Hey just wanted to tell you I had a lousy day and John Prine brought a smile to my face, the son had written, although in somewhat earthier terms. Love you.
The pint-sipping man’s half-smile became whole. “Real nice,” said John Prine.
Many tough days have been made better by Mr. Prine, the influential singer and songwriter with a gift for articulating moments almost beyond words. His songs have won the respect of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Pink Floyd, the Library of Congress, you name it. One admirer, Bob Dylan, once described his canon as “pure Proustian existentialism” and “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.”
And, just recently, PEN New England named Mr. Prine as a recipient of a Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, an honor previously shared by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman.
These accolades are all the sweeter given where Mr. Prine has been. In 1996, he found out he had cancer; the subsequent surgery removed a piece of his neck and severed a few nerves in his tongue, while the radiation damaged some salivary glands. A year of recuperation and intensive speech therapy followed before he was able to perform, only now with a voice that grumbled like the trucks that used to pass his roadside childhood home.
Then, as if to provide a gratuitous refresher course in the preciousness of life, Mr. Prine again learned he had cancer in 2013, this time with a spot on the left lung. After the surgery, a physical trainer put him through what seems like peculiarly Nashville post-cancer workouts. The singer would have to hustle up and down the house stairs, grab his guitar while still panting and sing two songs. All to build his stamina.
Six months after lung surgery, Mr. Prine was back on the road, singing his distinctive American songbook: “Angel From Montgomery,” “Hello in There,” “Lake Marie,” “Souvenirs” and so many more. His concerts often have a tent-revival vibe, with people shouting his name and singing along to stories about endangered places and marginalized people, forgotten movie stars and newfound love.
(He performs at Kings Theater in Brooklyn on Friday, April 8.)
Mr. Prine lives to pick guitar and sing, even when vacationing in Ireland, where he and his Irish-born wife, Fiona, own a cottage in a small County Galway village. On some nights the word will spread that John Prine has joined a session in Green’s pub or The Travellers Inn — you never know where or when — playing with locals for a pint or two. (I once spent several nights trying to track him down, only to hustle over to Green’s just as he was putting his guitar into his case.)
The joy he finds in his continuing presence is evident, but Mr. Prine is too fine a writer to reduce his post-cancer worldview to Hallmark bromides. He does allow, though, that his illnesses forced him to reckon with who he was, exactly.
And what did he learn?
“That I’m a pretty good guy to hang around with,” he said.
Mr. Prine backed this up one late afternoon by telling his life story with humor and wonder, as waiters in a Manhattan steakhouse tried to hurry him along in anticipation of an evening rush. But he was in none — rush, that is — which he conveyed by tucking a napkin under his chin in cordial welcome to a bowl of lobster bisque.
He grew up beside a four-lane highway in the blue-collar Chicago suburb of Maywood, a son of Bill and Verna, a tool-and-die maker and a homemaker, both from Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky. He listened to Hank Williams, learned guitar from an older brother and was glad to land a civil-service job soon after high school: mailman. He composed lyrics as he delivered the mail — with little interruption to his train of thought. After working the same route for more than three years, for example, he delivered a package to a longtime customer who asked: “When’s the regular guy coming back?”
Seeking refuge from the wind and cold, Mr. Prine would spend his lunch breaks composing songs while hunched inside a relay box that was used to store mail. “And I was in there singing ‘Hello In There,’” he said. “It echoed real good inside, too.”
What came next is music lore. Out of the Army and back as a mail carrier, Mr. Prine was at an open-mike night in Chicago, drinking beer and muttering about the lack of talent, when someone dared him to get up there. He began with a song about a damaged combat soldier, “Sam Stone,” that now ranks among the most searing ballads of the Vietnam War.
“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose…”
As Mr. Prine remembers it, the audience remained silent; unnervingly so. He went on to sing “Hello in There,” about the loneliness of old age, and “Paradise,” about a disappearing Kentucky coal town.
Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking.
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
This trio of future classics won hearty applause, finally, and a deal to sing for $1,000 a weekend — under the table and three times his Civil Service pay. When Mr. Prine told the postmaster that he was quitting to attempt a singing career, the supervisor advised him not to cash out his pension. “You’ll be back,” he said.
The 24-year-old mailman cashed out anyway, banking on his uncommon skills for noticing, listening and transforming it all into poetry set to music.
A month before the release of Mr. Prine’s first album, in 1971, his father died at 55 of a heart attack while watching the highway traffic flow past his front porch. It has seemed ever since that Mr. Prine is still spinning stories for Bill and Verna, the three of them sitting on that porch, laughing and crying about how the world goes round.
There’s the one about Sabu the Elephant Boy, visiting the Twin Cities in winter: “Hey look, Ma, here comes the elephant boy, bundled all up in his corduroy…”
And about the missing years of Jesus: “It was raining, it was cold, West Bethlehem was no place for a 12-year-old…”
And about not seeing people of a certain age: “So if you’re walking down the street sometime, and spot some hollow ancient eyes, please don’t just pass ’em by and stare, as if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Mr. Prine is revered by his peers, including Rosanne Cash, who marvels at his complex yet accessible lyrics, and his ability to establish place and character with a few spare words. “He’s just one of the greats, and an old, old soul,” she said. “I think he came in with this huge heart and wisdom far beyond his years.”
Bonnie Raitt, who has often toured with Mr. Prine and who cannot give a concert without singing his “Angel From Montgomery,” agreed. “He just has a unique ability to haiku it,” she said. “It’s deceptively insightful. It’s at once playing on words and imagery, but expressing something deeper in such a succinct way, in such an exceptional way.”
He is also admired as a trailblazer for his early rejection of the recording-industry model, which he felt exploited singers and songwriters. When he co-founded an independent label, Oh Boy Records, in 1981, fans sent enough checks in advance of the next album that costs were already covered.
“That’s when I thought I’ve got something here,” he said.
Mr. Prine spent a good chunk of his adulthood on tour, earning a reputation as a solid performer who also liked to smoke and drink and party and fish and just hang out. He got married and divorced a couple of times before meeting Fiona Whelan, from County Donegal, in 1988. Within a few years, he was the married father of two boys and stepfather to his wife’s first son.
His wife, who manages the John Prine business, said that for all the care that her husband takes to avoid cheap sentimentality in his songs, she has never met anyone more sentimental. About Christmas, for example. If he had complete run of the house, she said, a Christmas tree would be displayed 12 months a year — as there is in his office. And she hasn’t forgotten the time the Prines took the children to the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”
“He cried when Santa came out,” Ms. Prine recalled. “The colors, the lights, the idea of family, togetherness, bestowing gifts. It means a lot to him.”
Then came the neck cancer, which Mr. Prine approached with wit and wonder to leaven the fear. His surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fashioned a shield for his vocal cords — as if he were Pavarotti, Mr. Prine joked, instead of a performer who talked more than sang. “He was going to all this trouble,” he recalled, “and I finally said, ‘Have you ever heard me sing?’”
His first performance after that year of recuperation was in Bristol, Tenn., and he remembers being as frightened as that night in Chicago, many years earlier, when he first took the stage on a beer-fueled dare. But the adrenaline carried him through, and the audience embraced him, with some fans even saying, “I like your new voice.”
Of course, he heard the exact opposite when a record producer asked him to participate in a tribute album for another artist. In the middle of recording a song, she stopped the session and asked, “You think you can sing the song in your old voice?”
Mr. Prine rarely speaks in public about his encounters with cancer, and has not written about it, because, he said, “I just don’t think it would make for a good song.” And though the disease has altered both his voice and appearance — one result of the radical neck surgery is that his head lowers at a tilt when he tires — he harbors no anger.
“He doesn’t take it personally,” his wife said.
But Mr. Prine’s relative fortune is never far from his thoughts. Now, before he goes onstage, he makes sure to have in his pocket exactly 42 cents: a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and two pennies, one old, one new. The reasons are as mysterious, perhaps, as some of his lyrics. “Usually calms my nerves for some reason,” he said. “It’s been going on since I had the cancer.”
Mr. Prine finished his bisque, and his story, in due course, and reached for his coat. He has another studio project coming later this year, there’s a grandchild now, and he turns 70 in October. But he is still hitting the road with his three-piece band.
If his two slow dances with mortality have changed him any, beyond his battle-scarred appearance, it is in how he experiences his own songs — songs that somehow have the power to improve a teenage boy’s lousy day in Virginia.
“Before, I just sang them,” Mr. Prine said. “Now I hear them.”
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