COVID-19 took country-folk singer-songwriter, John Prine, from the world, but he’ll remain forever in the hearts of those who he influenced through his music, including a solid handful of Methow Valley residents.
Local musician Lauralee Northcott remembers being in college in the early 1970s when her boyfriend introduced her to John Prine’s music. “We put on the vinyl LP,” says Lauralee, “and by the end of the first half I was a pool of tears.” Lauralee talks about Prine’s “deep connective tissue,” saying “this man was an acute journalist of the human condition. I loved him with a white-hot love.”
Retired Twisp librarian Terry Dixon still owns the Prine albums she bought in 1972 and 1973, enduring proof of her love of his music. She saw him in concert in the mid-1970s, but it was a bit of a wild night for Prine and it wasn’t his finest performance (“it was disappointing, but I forgave him,” says Terry).
Thus Terry was really looking forward to seeing him again in concert in Spokane this coming August to celebrate her birthday. “I’m sad this won’t happen,” Terry says, “but more sad that he won’t be writing and singing more songs for everyone to enjoy.”
Winthrop PA Danielle Micheletti’s memories of Prine are woven into her mid-to-late 20s: her climbing bum years. “I was lucky enough to see him play with Bonnie Raitt in an outdoor amphitheater,” Danielle says, “and I always had his box set in my old VW van CD player.” When Danielle’s van was broken into near the Owens River Gorge in California, the thieves took all of her CDs. “The John Prine collection was the one I missed the most,” she says.
Similarly, Twisp biologist and musician Ken Bevis discovered Prine when he (Ken) was “a vagabond ski bum and forestry worker in Colorado” who “had a couple of his cassette tapes in my ’74 VW Bug.” Ken says he still marvels at Prine’s simple tunes – Prine only used four chords – but complex and clever lyrics. “I didn’t realize how much he meant to me, and now he’s gone,” says Ken.
Winthrop contractor Andy McConkey was caretaking Methow Valley resident Bill Biddle’s house in 1992 and had tickets to a Bonnie Raitt concert in Spokane. When Andy learned that a musician he’d never heard of named John Prine would be opening for Raitt, he mentioned it to Biddle, who ran down to the basement and “came rolling up with an armload of records, literally every record John Prine had made,” says Andy. “So we got the crash course on Prine right before hitting the road to the concert.” One of the first songs Prine played was “Hello in There,” says Andy. “And we just sat there with several thousand other folks crying or trying not to. He was funny and gracious and deferential. And he was tremendous.”
“Hello in There” could be a bit of an anthem in an era of social distancing, reminding us to reach out to each other and show that we care: “You know that old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day/Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Another Prine anthem for the times is “Paradise,” says Winthrop musician and music teacher Stephen Kish, referencing the successful Methow Headwaters campaign: “And 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.” (Except that we came together to protect our “Paradise” from our own Mister Peabody.)
“It’s just one of those perfect songs that leaves you humming,” says Kish, “as well as thinking about our world, our impact, our responsibility.”
“It’s stunning that he’s gone,” Kish says. “As a local host for many Open Mics, I always hear Prine’s music showing up, sometimes multiple times during a night. The songs and stories are so good, that no matter the level a performer is at, as long as they have the courage to sing out, the song is going to carry the performer.” Kish talks about his guitar students learning the intricacies of Prine’s style: “that magic element that helps capture and propel his songs into the unmistakable Prine-o-sphere.”
On the day of John Prine’s death, KTRT owner Don Ashford says he “went off to sleep thinking about him and his legacy.” When Don awoke the next morning, the Prine song “When I Get to Heaven” just happened to be playing on KTRT’s pre-programmed playlist, followed by an R. Carlos Nakai native flute tune. “It seemed to cover all the bases for me,” says Don, who then launched a 24-hour Prine-a-thon music marathon on the Root, which was appreciated by many.
“His gifts are still here, he is alive in the music,” says Lauralee. “Thank you, John. God bless you forever.”