John Prine's passing is devastating on many levels. It's hard to express just how much his music influenced me in a few lines or tweets or Youtube video shares on Facebook. So here are a few vignettes.
First Encounter - Pittsburgh
Back in Freshman year of college, 2001!, I would go to the Carnegie Library and check out Cds (!!) so I could burn them and listen to them on my portable CD Player (!!) as I walked around campus. Pittsburgh was the first big city I ever lived in and that freshman year was tough. That concrete watershed seemed to amplify every sound and every light. I was constantly overwhelmed by all the noise and traffic and people. But I loved it all the same, especially when I put on my headphones and just escaped into an inner world within the city. Headphones and my bike. Those were my escapes. Those were my tools for handling that transition. Back to the library. One day I came across Prine's album Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. I had heard Prine before, even had his self-titled album on record and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, produced by the late, great Howie Epstein (bass player for the Heartbreakers), was just so fucking beautiful. From that orchestral opening of "New Train" to that great slow blues bass line of "I Ain't Hurtin' Nobody" and then the epic, gorgeous "Lake Marie." What a fucking masterpiece. My Freshman year was defined by two albums that I played on repeat as I explored the steep city streets of Pittsburgh - Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Without Prine and Tweedy, I don't think I could have made it.
Pacific Crest Trail
A few years later I found myself living out of a backpacking doing trail work on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. We'd go into the backcountry for ten days, build trails, then spend four days off traveling to our next site, gorging on burritos and In-N-Out Burger, drinking beer. We were constantly haggard and smelly and it was a wonderful existence - never knowing exactly where you'd be setting up your tent, traversing the California mountains. One morning we woke up on the beach surrounded by gigantic Redwoods, a herd of elk, and seals playing in the water. One morning we woke up to the Santa Anna Winds tearing through our camp, literally ripping our tents. One morning we woke up to a blizzard up in the Siskiyou. One morning we woke up in the middle of the night because the full moon was so bright in the Mojave Desert it was impossible to sleep so we stayed up and watched the silhouettes of Joshua Trees slowly meander across the Desert floor. One morning we woke up in the Emigrant Wilderness to see only the eyes of coyotes circling us in our sleeping bags.
Anyway. We'd have these long drives between work sites (trailheads). California is big. And my tentmate Tom had this Cd-r (!) recording of Prine's 2005 Bonnaroo Concert. We played that show on repeat. It was such an incredible recording. Prine was in prime form, bringing out "Your Flag Decal" out of retirement (Iraq War) and dedicating "Some Humans Ain't Human" to Bush. "All the Best" - it's an emergency song! Good luck! And then ending with "Lake Marie" and "Paradise". That record took us up and down the coast of California. It was a soundtrack to a transformative time of my life.
And that's just a sliver of what Prine has meant to me. There's the concert in Pittsburgh that Steiner and I went to, years after graduating college. We rode through the dark city down to see Prine and then took the long way home along abandoned railroad tracks, finding places along the Allegheny to stop and drink and smoke and watch the slow river burn its way under those bridges.
There are all those countless nights of sitting around a fire in my back yard listening to Prine, helping me center myself in this big old goofy world. There are the countless singalongs to "Lake Marie" and the yelling of SHADOWS! SHADOWS! at random times during the day and immediately breaking out into reckless laughter. God damn. What does blood look like on a black & white TV? SHADOWS!!!
That’s the genius of Prine. Even the sad shit is hilarious. Just like life. Every time I’ve felt like complete shit in this life, I just put on Prine and everything slowly gets put back into place. I go back to when I was working trails in Maine and Dean and I would sing Prine songs while we worked, making the incessant black-fly bites tolerable. Thank you Mr. Prine, for not just making this world tolerable, but for making it beautiful, for being a soundtrack for so much of my life.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.