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Behind the Songs of John Prine

| October 10, 2013 | 40 Comments

“I guess I always loved to write, but I never had anything to really encourage it. I never thought I could be a journalist or novelist or anything, I just had a wild imagination and songwriting gave me enough rope to run with it.”

From that imagination has sprung some of the most beloved characters, familiar scenarios, and quotable lyrics of any writer, placing John Prine in a league of his own. From his spine-chilling imagery of the Vietnam Vet “Sam Stone,” to the bittersweet recognizable characters of “Donald and Lydia,” to the sing-along “blow up your TV” chorus in “Spanish Pipedream,” Prine is a songwriter loved by his peers and idolized by his fans.

John Prine was born the third of four children on October 10, 1946, and grew up in a Chicago suburb. His parents were natives of Western Kentucky, and his father emigrated to Chicago to escape the drudgery of the coal mines. But John spent many summers of his childhood with relatives in the Appalachian coal-mining town of Paradise, where the culture, music, values, and blue-collar struggles all played a part in developing Prine’s imagination and insightful view of the world. And it was here that the groundwork was laid for his lyrical gems to come.

Prine wrote his first songs when he was fourteen after his brother taught him a few chords on the guitar. He played mostly for himself, his family, and “to impress girls,” but never really took it seriously. After graduating from high school in 1964, he worked for two years with the postal service and was drafted by the Army and sent to Germany. There he spent ‘66 and ‘67 as head of the motor pool, and drug his guitar around with him to entertain the guys in the barracks. After his Army days were over, however, Prine went back to delivering mail – all the while writing songs as he walked his beat.

Prine’s life and profession changed in 1970 when, after a few beers, some friends talked him into getting up at an open-mike night at a Chicago club called The Fifth Peg. After that, events began to happen to lead John down the path of becoming a professional singer-songwriter. He met and become close friends with Steve Goodman, who at the time had a hit out for Arlo Guthrie with “City of New Orleans,” and it was Goodman who played one of Prine’s songs for Kris Kristofferson, bowled him over, got the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and thus began the Cinderella story of John Prine.

To celebrate John’s birthday today we take a look at the stories behind a few of his most loved songs. Happy, happy birthday, John, and thanks for all the music and smiles you’ve given us!

Dear Abby

I was in Europe and my first wife and I stopped in Rome for the day. I wanted a newspaper and all they had was the International Herald Tribune which is all the tragic news in the world crammed into six pages with no sports results and no comics. And yet here’s “Dear Abby.” She was the only relief in the whole paper. and that’s where I wrote most of the song—in Rome, Italy that is.

Years later somebody took the verse about the guy whose stomach makes noises, wrote it just out of kilter enough so it didn’t rhyme, and send it to “Dear Abby.” And she answered it in her column. She suggested that he seek professional help. She got loads of letters from people who knew the song and told her she’d been had.

Spanish Pipe Dream

I wrote this when I started performing. I thought the first song of the show should be up and bouncy. I can only play two rhythms—fast and slow—so this was written to go with my fast bouncy rhythm

Originally, the chorus wasn’t about blowing up your TV. It was something about the girls forgetting to take the pill, but sunk pretty low after that first great verse. I sounded like Loretta Lynn singing about “the pill.” Then I got the line “blow up your TV.” I used to keep a small bowl of real fine pebbles that I picked up on my mail route, and if somebody said something really stupid on TV I’d throw some at the screen.

Sam Stone

There’s no one person who was the basis for Sam Stone, more like three or four people; like a couple of my buddies who came back from Vietnam and some of the guys I served with in the army. At that time, all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs, made up to slap each other on the back like “Yeah, this is the right cause.” I don’t remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all.

I came up with the chorus first and decided I really liked the part about the “hole in daddy’s arm.” I had this picture in my mind of a little girl, like Little Orphan Annie, shaking her head back and forth while a rainbow of money goes into her dad’s arm. I think I invented the character of Sam Stone as a story line just to get around to that chorus.

Hello In There

I heard the John Lennon song “Across the Universe,” and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody—“Hello in there.” That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people

I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old peoples home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head.

It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing “Hello in There.” Nothing in it wears on me.

Souvenirs

When I was first performing at the Fifth Peg in Chicago, I thought I should have a new song every week so that people wouldn’t hear the same songs they heard last week. I wrote this song in my ‘65 Malibu on my way to the club on a Thursday night.

Illegal Smile

I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer.

When I first started singing it I went on this underground TV program, and the only stage set they had was two chairs and this fake marijuana plant. I came on and sang “Illegal Smile,” and they kept having the camera pan in, real psychedelic-like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fine by the musician’s union for not taking any money to do the show.

Paradise

I wrote it for my father mainly so he would know I was a songwriter. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was in the army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling me how the coal company had bought the place out.

It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had to general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short. He looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s dad, all day fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers came in and wiped it all off the map.

When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox

Donald and Lydia

I had a book with names for babies. I actually called out names from the book, like you call the kids to dinner, trying to picture the person in my mind. I had Donald quick; Lydia was the tough one.

I can always tell first-time listeners at my shows when they laugh at that line “the fat girl daughter of Virginia and Ray.” the rest of the audience always turns and looks at them like, “Let’s see your membership card!”

—by Lydia Hutchinson

From Performing Songwriter Issue 12 and Issue 46

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Illegal Smile « POTUSongs | October 12, 2012
  2. Braddock, Gill Among Songwriters Hall of Fame Nominees; Avett Brothers & Randy Travis to Film CMT Crossroads Episode; Stream New Rosie Flores Record - Engine 145 | October 11, 2012
  3. Found a set of John Prine clips tongiht... | June 28, 2012
  4. Cousin John Prine and Paradise » A Blog to Remember... | October 27, 2011
  1. ron bank says:

    My buddy and I met John Prine a few months after his first album came out. We were scheduled to play an opening set at a little folk club in Irvine, Ca. Much to our surprise, we were opening for John. Since we had begun playing his songs in our other shows, we felt the need to tell him before we went on. His response was “Don’t worry about it. You’ll probably do them better than me.” Nice guy!

  2. Sherman Mohr says:

    The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will present a special program with singer-songwriter John Prine, in support of the spotlight exhibition John Prine.
    http://www.nashville.com/music/2014/04/sit-in-on-a-conversation-with-john-prine/

  3. Sherman Mohr says:

    On Saturday, April 19, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum will present a special program with singer-songwriter John Prine, in support of the spotlight exhibition John Prine: It Took Me Years to Get These Souvenirs, which closes May 4, 2014.

    http://www.nashville.com/music/2014/04/sit-in-on-a-conversation-with-john-prine/

  4. Jesse Hodge says:

    Geography lesson: Paradise Kentucky is not, was not ever an “Appalachian coal-mining town”. Paradise is in western Kentucky which is hundreds of miles from the Appalachian mountains. Duh! PS: Ask John’s cousin, Mark Plain, who lives in Hopkins county near Paradise.

  5. Capt. Mike says:

    Mickey was a friend of mine and was staying with me in Chicago when he left for Colorado Springs never to return as far as I know. I went out several times to visit him in Manitou Springs. I lost touch several years ago when I got a Christmas card back like an old Elvis tune “return to sender; address unknown”. I was worried but found out he was still alive. So sorry to hear about his death. I remember meeting him in the back of my old ’66 VW camper waiting for the rain to stop before going into a pop fest. he left the back of the camper — we had been smokin’ dope for hours and he fell down the hill and could not get up and kept falling and laughing and me too. We have been friends ever since. I miss you old buddy. It was so nice of John Prine and whoever made up this memorial. It was just beautiful. I am stinkin’ and drinkin’ and thinkin’ of you old buddy. Love always. until we meet again. Love, Capt. Mike.

  6. Teresa says:

    Phillip: Thank you so much for the update on my old friend Mickey. So sad to hear of him after he had passed. So glad he made it out of Mexico safely and he and John remained life long buddies. Mickey gave my friend Dawn from Cicero a dog Chi Town who we took
    on a road trip to the Florida Keys in a ’69 VW van
    I will be sending a special shout out to him on May 4 from my home in Albuquerque, NM. I may have passed him in the street of Colorado Springs over the years. He will always be fondly remembered in my heart.

  7. Phillip S. says:

    In response to:

    “Teresa Sicilia says:
    January 25, 2012 at 11:50 am
    I met John in a bar on Armitage in Chicago, maybe the 5th peg not sure and he wore overalls and offered to teach me guitar for $5 a lesson and gave me copies of his songs, lyrics and notes. I gave them to a musician friend from Kentucky who I hope put them to good use. I left for Europe and never did take him up on it. We had a mutual friend Mickey that left for Mexico around that time and we never heard from him. I was so pleased to see the success John achieved and always wanted to ask him if he ever did hear from Mickey.”

    Teresa,
    Mickey Buie was my Uncle. Unfortunately he passed away last month in Colorado Springs where he lived for a number of years. John and Mickey remained life long friends and John would visit Mickey whenever he did a show in the area. Mickey is the friend John refers to drinking bourbon with in his song “Mexican Home”.

    My uncle’s memorial service is next Saturday, May 4th in Colorado Springs. Details for the service will be in the local paper this week.

  8. YumYum says:

    God I love that man! I’m 49 years young, and I just always remember loving John Prine….have no idea when I first heard him but I was early teens for sure.

    So I was late getting into the computer age, and once while visiting my family back home my older brother was trying to coax me into even sitting down in front of his computer. The ONLY thing he snared me with was by saying “Hey just think you can look up John Prine even!” SOLD! My bro got so annoyed watching me huntand peck for every letter on the keyboard-but that was my very first EVER google or whatever it was back then computer type experience! I’d forgotten that memory until this very moment, what a sweet blast.

    Now, here I was again tonight looking up John Prine due to a TV ad I saw that he was coming to town in May, Yay! I need to get tickets and that’s how I saw this article- which is great, by the way!

    I’ve only seen John live one time, and it was so mind blowing for me I wept almost the whole show. Yah, I know but I couldn’t help myself it meant SO much to me! I got to meet him afterwards, too, talk about a fantastic night….. fingers crossed for tickets

  9. Ronnie Braswell says:

    I first heard of John back in the summer 1974. It was my first quarter at West Georgia College. The fellow that turned me on to Prine said prine had “soul” I believed it then & I believe it.
    That first album was Sweet Revenge. I think I have most if not all his albums. Most in Album format.
    Let me think where all we have seen John in concert:
    1979 Athens, GA
    2002? Macon, GA
    2006?Pensocola FL
    2012 Athens GA
    I was without a stereo for a good long while (due in large part to poverty in the 80s) and when I was finally able to listen to a John prine album again it was like seeing/hearing my long lost best friend again.

  10. Scott Nolan says:

    Hello to Steve Petry, glad you finally got to see JP live. I was at that same concert in Philly last November. I posted a blurb about it on Facebook, see if this sounds familiar to you…

    Oh, now I remember what it’s like. The guy on stage picks off the first six notes on his guitar and over half the crowd goes Ohh and Ahh. This is the song the guy up front just shouted out. The singer forgets the words to one of the songs and everyone shouts it out, because they know every single word. He says ‘Once you screw up, you can never go back. My old friend Steve would have said ‘Johnny, ya just f***** up!’. That song got the biggest applause of the night. He got a note from a guy in the audience who wants him to wish his wife a happy birthday, so he dedicates ‘That’s The Way That The World Goes Round’ to her. It’s the couple sitting right next to us.
    He sings so many songs in a two hour show, mostly great old stuff with a couple of new ones thrown in. The Six O’Clock News, Sam Stone, My Mexican Home, it went on and on. I think he channeled the spirit of Elvis, at least into his left leg, which was shaking all over as he played Lake Marie. He brought out his opening act (Sarah Jarosz was great!) to do Paradise. Dave Jacques plucked out the bass notes all night long, and Jason Wilbur is way more talented than I ever realized.
    I may not get out much, but man am I glad we got to see John Prine at the Merriam Theater Friday night. He’s been doing this for decades and you can tell still he enjoys it.

  11. Steve Petry says:

    First Heard JP on a Tape in a car in 1976 driving around Millinocket Maine on a sun off from a Consruction Job. It was the Sweet Revenge album, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The man has more real life common sense than any one human I ever knew of. FINALLY, Nov 16, 2012, I got to see The Man 1st time Live in Philly. Thrill. 70 yrs old now and plan to follow him in Us ASAP upon his return from Overseas. I have 12 JP cds and “Sweet Revenge” song is only on the album of that title….surprising, Great Song, along w/Granpa the carpenter and Blue Umbrella. Love JP…Keep on Keepin’on Man !!!

  12. Don says:

    First heard John in very early 70′s. Road tripping with my best friend listening to self titled and Sweet Revenge. Never heard anything like it. Saw him every time he came to Madison, WI. 2011 hanging with my son in Nashville and walking by the Station Inn and JP was playing there with a bunch of friends for his birthday party. Walked in sat down and was blown away. Got to talk to him for awhile. Paradise and Sam Stone where the first songs I ever played on guitar. His songs are the music sound track of my life. God bless ya man

  13. MadDawg says:

    Was present at those 5th Peg days. Donald and Lydia has always been one of my faves, especially the names of Lydia’s mom and dad—Virgina and Ray!

  14. Becky says:

    Thank you, what a wonderful musical evening with John Prine.

  15. Scott says:

    Been a big JP fan since I was in my teens and my brother came home and told me about a cover band that did this song about whistling and fishing in heaven. Been listening for all of the decades that have followed. I even wrote a book, not about JP mind you, but the lyrics from three of his songs that I used and many more references that only true Prine fans would catch really help the story along. ‘Argyle Gargoyles: A Darkly Humorous Novel’ by Scott Nolan. (Only available as an eBook)
    http://www.amazon.com/Argyle-Gargoyles-Darkly-Humorous-ebook/dp/B006HSX31M

  16. Teresa Sicilia says:

    I met John in a bar on Armitage in Chicago, maybe the 5th peg not sure and he wore overalls and offered to teach me guitar for $5 a lesson and gave me copies of his songs, lyrics and notes. I gave them to a musician friend from Kentucky who I hope put them to good use. I left for Europe and never did take him up on it. We had a mutual friend Mickey that left for Mexico around that time and we never heard from him. I was so pleased to see the success John achieved and always wanted to ask him if he ever did hear from Mickey.

  17. Ken Lamb says:

    John Prine can make me laugh, cry, reflect and blush and often all in the same song.
    when I was in grade school I overheard my track coach singing Sour grapes and I asked him if he had made that up and he said no it was John Prine.

    I had forgotten about that and years later I heard illegal smile on the radio and when the DJ said who it was I remembered the track coach and decided twice in a lifetime wasn’t enough and since that time have seen him countless times going back to the days he would tour with Steve Goodman, have seen him do Paradise with some awesome sidekicks and at this point he really just feels like family.

  18. JJ Biener says:

    I have been a fan of John Prine since I as first introduced to his music back in the 70′s. I was in a band and we played several songs off his first album, and that was where I first heard of him. I just saw him on tour with Kris Kristofferson and he was in top form.

    I actually worked for Peabody Coal for a couple of years in the mid 90′s. I had misgivings from the start, but I needed the job. There wasn’t a day go by that I didn’t hear “Paradise” playing in my head on my way into the office. After two year, I couldn’t take the guilt any more and I got another job.

  19. Oldfolkie says:

    John Prine – America’s Grandpa

  20. Great article, Lydia!
    John Prine is my cousin and I actually have a photo of Bubby Short and my Great-Grandaddy Ham.
    I would love for you and your readers to see it.
    You can see it here – Cousin John Prine and Paradise.
    http://www.ablogtoremember.com/?p=450
    Hope you enjoy!
    Loved your article and I have posted it for all the family to see.
    Have a great day,
    Karen Stevens

  21. Steve Roche says:

    Nice article. I’ve often said that the answers to life’s many riddles can often be found in any of John Prine’s songs. I’ve been listening to him from the start. I think you folks need to do a followup on stories of about his songs since the the ’70′s. There’s a whole lifetime of songs there being ignored. You went for the obvious. Challenge yourselves and us as readers, to expand beyond just “the Famous”. Thanks–Steve

  22. Jerome says:

    Great post, thanks! Saw that “Underground TV” appearance live on Chicago’s UHF Channel 44 at about 14 years old laying on living room floor while rest of the house was sleeping. There was also a big hookah on the coffee table, and hearing John sing Paradise made a fan out of me then and there. So many great shows all over Chicagoland over the years, and once in the ’90s was even so fortunate to get invited to hang out with John in the Park West green room post show, which was to say the least a lot of laughs & fun.

  23. Emerson says:

    This is a fantastic list of some great songs!

    By chance, does anyone know the story behind Saddle in the Rain? The original song is good, but when I heard him perform it live right before “Live and Onstage” came out (Apr/2010), I was FLOORED. Changing the rhythm and tone completely transform the song- I imagine anyone who has read this far knows what I am talking about…

    Oh, and Chris- keep going to record stores- it is good to know that Prince did not release much vinyl, but then again good luck finding Prine LP’s!

  24. Heather says:

    Sam Stone reminds me of dad, instead of his arm he swallowed pills, booze and about anything that took his mind off his life and his family. It took me years to forgive his weaknesses.

  25. Bill says:

    Like a lot of guitar players I have been singing John Prine songs for years. Whenever I’m out playing someone will always ask…”Do you know any John Prine..???” Im always happy to oblige. I’ve been to lots of his concerts so I have heard these stories before, but this is so cool to have them all written down in one place. Just yesterday my copy of The Singing Mailman arrived in the mail…Two John Prine treats in a row…I’ll be at an Open Mic tonight and you can be sure I will sing a couple of his songs.
    John is a great Singer Songwriter and a great person too. Thanks for the songs the stories and the article…

  26. John says:

    What about my favorite John Prine song, “Happy Enchilada”.

  27. Tony Ruthven says:

    I’ve been playin’ and singing since I was 10 (64 now) and in all the groups I played with, I always managed to sneak a John Prine or two number in. John you have been absolutely, positively, the biggest influence in my musical life. For that I thank you. Never seen you live, you don’t come to Canada too often, but that’s OK, you got me through lung cancer, a separation, and 7 Bar Bands.

    Cheers Bud,

    Tony R.

  28. Lydia says:

    I think you’re right, Lynda — Muhlenberg County is actually a little west of what would be considered Appalachia. My mistake. Back in my college days I used to work for the Appalachia Service Project in nearby Clay County, and I think we also had a center in neighboring Logan County. We used to sing “Paradise” at every evening gathering, so John was a part of our lives even then!

  29. Chris says:

    I am such a huge John Prine fan.

    If there is one good thing about the demise of record stores is I don’t have to look at pictures of Prince on his CD’s on my way to John Prine CD’s. If you have not seen pictures of Prince on his CD’s, let’s say they are of two very different worlds.

  30. Lynda J says:

    Love this article & love John Prine. I wonder though why the writer described Paradise as an “Appalachian coal-mining town” because it was in Western Kentucky not in Appalachia.

  31. arlene pickard says:

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I heard John perform while I was a student at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Some lyrics from Paradise and Sam Stone have stayed in my mind all these years.

  32. Kayla says:

    My husband of thirty 30 years passed away in Dec, it will be seven years and he palyed Johns music up until he died We would would all get together and pic n grin John Prine was one of his favorites ours too of course. We have and alwayswill
    have those memories thanks to you John!

  33. Ronnie says:

    I was introduced to Prine’s music in the summer of 1974 while a student a West Georgia College. His music remains a big part of my life. I think i have seen him perform 4 or 5 times over the years. The most recent was at the Fox in Atlanta in 02/2011 an dhe has never sounded better.
    Just got his “singing mailman’ cd. Even better than I expected.
    Long live John Prine.

  34. Lydia says:

    You’re welcome, Kathy – glad you enjoyed it! I adore John Prine …

  35. Kathy Abell says:

    Thank you who ever put this together, I Love it

  36. Rick says:

    I first started listening to John’s music in 1971 (?) when I was a college student in Grand Forks, ND. His music has been a primary part of the soundtrack of my life for 40 years – can’t begin to tell you how many concerts I’ve been to from Grand Forks to Fargo to several here in the Twin Cities.
    His music and humor carried me through my own bout of throat cancer.
    Thanks, John..

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