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John Prine Isn’t Counting the Time

‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ is a deft, devastating late-period album, but its singer-songwriter still knows how to enjoy himself

Danny Clinch

The last song on John Prine’s new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, is called “When I Get to Heaven.” Relax. He’s in no hurry, nor is he feeling any anxiety about it. The tune is a warm embrace of mortality, and a rowdy sing-along, and also, most importantly, a drink order.

Prine is an Illinois native, a god-tier singer-songwriter, and an American legend; his self-titled 1971 debut album is a masterpiece, full of country-folk standards that hit harder as they get sadder. (“Sam Stone” is about a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, “Paradise” is about a Kentucky town ravaged by strip-mining, and “Hello in There” is about how senior citizens just wish someone would stop to talk to them.)

“When I Get to Heaven” is a bawdy cakewalk by comparison. Celestial harps give way to a bright acoustic guitar, and then Prine, his winsome croak flaunting every one of his 71 years, delivers the first of several cheerful spoken-word verses: “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand. Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand.” And then? “Then I’m gonna get a gui-tar and start a rock ’n’ roll band.”

The sung chorus, which eventually adds jaunty barroom piano and a full barroom’s worth of tipsy-sounding backup singers, goes like this:

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl
On the Tilt-A-Whirl
Cause this old man is goin’ to town

A less than god-tier singer-songwriter wouldn’t fret too much about the specifics of that cocktail: whatever rhymed, and fit the meter, and sounded reasonably cool. But Prine knows that the song’s better if the details are true. “John has this drink that he likes,” the singer and violinist Amanda Shires told a website called The Bitter Southerner in 2016, as part of a star-studded oral-history celebration headlined “The Big Old Goofy World of John Prine.” Specifically, “It’s called a Handsome Johnny, and it’s Smirnoff Vodka with diet ginger ale. … It is really not a good drink, but because John Prine likes it, I’ve somehow managed to develop a taste for it.”

Chatting on the phone in late March, Prine is happy to confirm his affinity for the Handsome Johnny, and thus the song’s veracity. “No, I made it rhyme,” he says. “It is my favorite. I didn’t have to go out of my way to find a rhyme for it.” Honesty is important in a song, he adds, “especially if you have to sing it every night. If I made up a drink, then people would, I’m sure, start sending those drinks to me.” An impulse he welcomes, by the way: “I’m telling people that I can’t afford my own drinks.”

He can, of course, but people want to buy him one anyway, and such is the superheroism of his everyman appeal. Prine is overwhelmingly generous both in song and in conversation: Ask him any question about any line in any song he’s delivered in the past 40-odd years, and he’ll offer a sumptuous, detail-rich sensory buffet. Take, for example, 1978’s gentle and wistful lope “Fish and Whistle,” and specifically the line, “Then I got fired for being scared of bees.”

“Yeah, it was a drive-in, a burger place where all the hot rods went called Skip’s Fiesta Drive-In,” Prine recalls. “This was my first job. I got a job there when I was 14. I was able to pay for my cigarettes.” But it didn’t last? “No. A swarm of bees attacked me while I was cleaning up frozen custard off of the pavement with hot bleach. The sweet smell from the custard attracted the bees. And I asked the guy if I could just clean the catwalks for a couple hours and then go back outside and get the custard off later. And he was an old, Swedish janitor, he goes, [scraggly Swedish accent] ‘You afraid of bees?’ He gave me my money, and that was it. I got paid 50 cents an hour. That line was true, too. He paid me in 50-cent pieces, so my pockets would jingle on my way home.”

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It is comforting to imagine a young John Prine toiling at various working-class jobs for an honest wage: Much has been made of his pre-fame gig as a small-town mailman. (Stephen Colbert, hosting Prine on The Colbert Report, once hailed him as a “folk singer’s folk singer, a songwriter’s songwriter. … Were you a mailman’s mailman?”) What makes him extra relatable in 2018 is both his frailty and his resilience. The Tree of Forgiveness is his first album of new material since 2005’s Fair & Square, and his first since beating cancer a second time: His diagnosis of operable lung cancer in 2013 was preceded by a severe health scare in 1996 that required surgery to remove a piece of his neck, which, along with a few severed nerves in his tongue, conspired to make his already rough-hewn voice even rougher.

“It dropped, I guess, a full octave,” Prine says, but naturally, he’s turned this into a positive thing. “It’s more comfortable for me to listen to. I never used to be able to listen to my older records. Not so much the sound of my voice, but I could tell how uncomfortable I was in the studio.”

To the casual and inevitably delighted listener, that discomfort has never been apparent, perhaps because said listener has always been too busy grinning like an idiot. “I got kicked off Noah’s Ark,” Prine sings on the unruly title track to 1973’s Sweet Revenge. “I turn my cheek to unkind remarks / There was two of everything / And one of meeeeee.”

The Tree of Forgiveness is less of a laugh riot, but it’s as deft and thoughtful as a devoted fan could hope for. Sometimes Prine’s concerns are half-serious: “The Lonesome Friends of Science” laments both the inevitable end of the world and Pluto’s demotion from a planet to “an ordinary star / Hanging out in Hollywood / In some old funky sushi bar.” And sometimes he’s hamming it up like always: “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” describes the apparently real-life tradition in which rural Midwestern farmers, driving en masse into the big city to sell their eggs, would drop their daughters off at a nearby roller rink. (“If they knew what you was thinkin’,” Prine notes to the presumably randy gentleman he’s singing to, “They’d a-run you out of Lincoln.”) He still sings like the sort of rapscallion who’d pull a quarter out of your ear and then pocket it.

But he also sings like a deep-thinking septuagenarian. “Summer’s End” is beautiful and devastating, both in its trademark specificity (“The swimming suits are on the line just dryin’”) and in the broader way it contemplates the finality of both vacation friendships and … other things, maybe. (Describing the writing process, Prine notes that he and his frequent cowriter, Pat McLaughlin, would typically start work at around 10 in the morning and adjourn around 1 p.m. to go get some meatloaf for lunch.) The Tree of Forgiveness roams the same hallowed ground as Johnny Cash’s American series or Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here or the more vulnerable moments on Bob Dylan’s twilight-years head-fake Time Out of Mind, late-period classics where every word out of the beloved and aged singer’s mouth is rich with Meaning.

“It’s natural, I guess,” Prine says. “It’s not like I’m counting the time. I thought they were 10 separate songs that didn’t have any connection to each other. My wife, right away, she said, ‘You realize that there’s a theme to this?’ And I said, ‘No. I was told to come up with a record, so I did.’ And I guess it’s just natural. Because if you write songs that are personal, I’m the thread that holds it together. So the theme is a 71-year-old man writing the songs. I couldn’t get around that unless I tried to act like I was a youngster. Between my ears, I probably am younger than I think I am.”

John Prine played the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002. It’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I have an especially vivid memory of “Lake Marie,” another spoken-verses epic, first released on record in 1995, that starts with an Indian tribe discovering two white babies near a pair of lakes on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, moves on to a vacation the narrator and his wife took “trying to save our marriage, and perhaps, catch a few fish,” and ends with a double homicide. “Saw it on the news,” Prine declares, rattled but electrified. “The TV news / In a black-and-white video / You know what blood looks like in a black-and-white video? / Shadows.” He repeats that last word, bellowing it this time: “Shadows!

“Well, thank you,” Prine tells me now. “I remember that gig. When it comes to zoo gigs, that was one of the nicer ones.” What does a not-nice zoo gig look like? “You’re in the middle of a fucking zoo.”

He’s got details, of course. “I played [the Minnesota Zoo]. I think in the fall we were up there — it was probably more like late August. We still had the black flies, and the mosquitoes from the nearby pond full of still water, and of course, the fumes from all the animals. Yeah.”

Bob Dylan digs “Lake Marie,” too. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he once told the Huffington Post. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.” (Of the thousands of once-hyped songwriters hailed as “the New Dylan,” Prine remains among the relative few to inspire any praise from the man himself.)

It is, indeed, a Proustian existentialist Midwestern mind trip to return to 1971’s John Prine today and marvel at the fact that the only thing that’s really changed is that his voice has dropped an octave. “Sam Stone” is likely his single most famous and enduring song: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” is a line good enough to make Bob Dylan sound like “the Old Prine.” But even the deeper cuts are vivid and startling —consider “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” whose opening lines certainly qualify as vivid:

While digesting Reader’s Digest in the back of a dirty bookstore
A plastic flag with gum on the back fell out on the floor
Well, I picked it up and I ran outside, slapped it on my window shield
And if I could see old Betsy Ross I’d tell her how good I feel

It does not upset John Prine, necessarily, that he did not personally devastate the flag-decal industry in the intervening 45-plus years, but he has noticed. “Every time somebody attacks our patriotism, all of a sudden it starts up again—people are out there wearing hats and jackets with flags on,” he says. “I don’t think kids anymore have any idea what the flag is supposed to stand for, if anything. I think it’s just a decoration now, like Solo cups at the Fourth of July with flags on them. That’s all it is. My generation was, your parents were still affected by World War II, and everybody thought we were good guys. Every time we waved the flag, we thought we were doing something good. And then it came apart in Vietnam.”

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Prine is surprised, both pleasantly and unpleasantly, that some of his more pointed and political songs have endured into the 21st century. “If somebody were to have had a conversation about it with me, I would’ve bet against the songs,” he says. “I would’ve thought that their life would’ve been five years, tops. Even with ‘Sam Stone,’ I thought it was too much about one point in our history.”

As for speaking to our fraught current moment in American history, Prine, a longtime Nashville resident and walking institution, is apt to leave that to the younger songwriters he has both championed and personally befriended, from Sturgill Simpson to Todd Snider to Jason Isbell to Margo Price. The Tree of Forgiveness is modest in its aims: It’s a meditative back-porch sort of record, content even with its mild discontent. But casual elegance abounds. “Boundless Love” is delicate and wistful, a love song that starts with the line “I woke up this morning to a garbage truck” that soon comes as close to anything he’s written at summarizing his enormous appeal:

Sometimes my old heart
Is like a washing machine
It bounces around
Till my soul comes clean
And when I’m clean
And hung out to dry
I’m gonna make you laugh
Until you cry

The great thing about John Prine is that he treats serious subjects with a delightful frivolity, and treats frivolous subjects with a welcome seriousness. Among his various lifelong loves—including cars, and meatloaf, and vodka and ginger ale—he is known to be a devout fan of Archie comics. The old, classic ones. Why is this, exactly?

“I don’t know, other than I like the world of Jughead,” Prine says. “I think he’s got the right outlook on the whole world, and I can’t for my life figure out why Archie doesn’t dump Veronica and just stick with Betty. I don’t know what’s with Archie. I need to sit down, give him a good talking-to.”

And yes, he has heard of Riverdale. Not a fan. “I don’t like the new stuff,” he says. “I don’t like this whole thing, the TV show. They tried to update him in the comics, too. Luckily they didn’t do away with the old Archie. Why improve on something? Why try and bring it up to date? Because the kids today can’t get into Jughead? If you can’t get into a guy that all he wants to do is eat and, you know, get out of work, that’s a great theme, right there.” It has certainly worked for John Prine all these years, and he, in turn, is still doing invaluable work for us.

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