Which is why it still feels nice, sometimes, to have somewhere to hide, some aspect of your life that is wholly unpretentious—a safe haven from our perpetually high-stakes surroundings. Maybe it’s the townie bar you drink at when you visit your hometown, or maybe it’s just your living room, where you secretly, unironically watch Glee or Parenthood or something. It’s a ribbon around your finger, a reminder that there is life outside Brooklyn, outside of indie rock, outside of whatever race you signed up for when you moved here, or when you decided to stay. It’s not a guilty pleasure, but the exact opposite: the kind of pleasure that reminds you what pleasure is supposed to feel like.
This is what John Prine’s records are for me, and it’s why for years I’ve wanted to write critically about him, about how he’s one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever heard, about how his melodies manage to seem sophisticated and childlike at the same time, about how despite all his constant joking about only knowing a couple of chords, he’s as expressive a guitarist as almost anyone, about how the degree to which he’s grown into his songs rather than out of them over the years speaks volumes about the kind of talent he had even at a young age. I want to say all these things, but I know deep down that none of it means nearly as much to me as the very simple fact that he’s the fully realized opposite of everything I’m a little bit worried we’ve become.
In one of his best-known songs, “Spanish Pipedream,” Prine relays the advice of a woman: “Blow up your TV, throw away your papers, move to the country, and build you a home/Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, and try to find Jesus on your own.” It’s like he’s daring us to just stop doing all the things that make us so crazy all the time, to figure out a new way of living that might ultimately lead to greater happiness. Whether you’re as tempted by the premise as I am is beside the point: this is what music, what all art, is supposed to do for us. It’s supposed to open us up to new ideas, and it’s supposed to change our lives, even though we’ve been trained, by years of jokes about the movie Garden State, and by scores of earnestness-hating critics and bloggers, to roll our eyes at the very notion.
If we’re going to give music the power it wishes to have, the power it deserves, then it’s not only acceptable to use authenticity as a measure of what’s valuable and what’s not, it’s imperative. We have to demand from our art what we can’t find in our real lives, so that one day we might be able to. It’s not supposed to matter anymore, but it does.
Prine’s new live album, In Person and On Stage is out this week. The tribute album Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine, featuring Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Drive By Truckers and Bon Iver among others, is out on June 22nd,