By Don Roth, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Mondavi Center | UC Davis
Walking across a cow patch in 1973, departing Willie Nelson’s first 4th of July Picnic in Dripping Springs Texas, my friend Jan Reid and I bumped into John Prine as he was leaving after his set; he told us a joke with the same twinkle in his eye that was reflected in songs like “Illegal Smile” (“it don’t cost very much but it lasts a long while”) and “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard”. A brief encounter but a memorable one – of which I was reminded when for a second time I met John Prine backstage at the Mondavi Center last fall. Jan, a writer of real depth in fiction and non-fiction, short and long form, was also a serious music nerd, as reflected in an article we wrote together about the return of Willie Nelson to Texas and the birth of “Redneck Rock” in its capital city. While we worked on that article, I had the opportunity to introduce Jan, he of Wichita Falls, to real Jewish bagels. And he introduced me, much more importantly, to the music of John Prine.
As we listened to that first eponymous album in 1971 here was someone who in his 20s had emerged full-grown as an artist. Besides the humor, there from the git go, one word sums up so much of what Prine’s songwriting and singing was about – and that word is empathy. Bob Dylan deserved and continues to deserve the praise and honors he has received for his art, his poetry and for capturing and distilling the spirit of a time and a generation. But the menschkeit in Prine’s work, the empathy, something we miss so much in our public life these days, was always there at the core. Even at his most sarcastic (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”) there’s a gentleness to the fun he pokes. And the way he inhabits characters, men and women, young and old, in songs like “Angel from Montgomery” “Grandpa was a Carpenter” “Donald and Lydia” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone”, the poignancy of these portrayals, is unmatched. He gets inside the souls of those characters and brings you along with him.
Covid-19 has been especially rough on the world of music, with losses like Ellis Marsalis, and now John Prine. It had been a long-time dream of mine to present John Prine who, like Bruce Springsteen, never gave a less than 100% committed performance in his life. And here he was, at age 73, on the stage of Jackson Hall, opening this now disrupted season, with a Springsteen-like two-hour marathon of music. I am so glad that we could bring a roomful of people together to hear him draw upon his very special body of work, a deep repertoire of songs funny and nostalgic, forlorn and romantic. Rest In Peace, Mr. Prine, thank you for everything you have given and left us.