I want to tell you all about a great kindness John Prine and his wife Fiona did for my family. Prine, deemed the “Mark Twain of American songwriting” by Rolling Stone magazine, died Tuesday in Nashville due to complications of Covid-19.
Our daughters grew up listening to me play John Prine songs around the house, and they often sang those songs along with me. Although I have command of only a handful of chords on the guitar, that still left most of the voluminous Prine songbook open to me. The simplicity and accessibility of Prine’s songs made them welcoming, while their insight, compassion, and humor made them irresistible. For many years now it has been one of our family Christmas traditions to sing Prine’s wonderful “Christmas in Prison” together.
Like many Prine songs, this one offers the small story of an unnamed person whose life we’re invited to take a moment to consider and to empathize with. I can think of few songwriters whose work is animated by such a keen sensitivity to how other people feel, and that offers a more moving reminder of why it is important that we never stop caring about that.
In late 2016 our daughter, Caroline, then 10 years old, doubled down on her love of John Prine. She described him as her favorite musician, she memorized his songs by the dozen, and she routinely walked around the house singing those songs – often out of tune, which I always thought Prine would have appreciated. The fact that Prine and Caroline were 60 years apart in age was immaterial. He was her guy, and she was his number one fan.
In the fall of 2017, it was announced that John Prine would be coming to our hometown of Reno to play a show. I had seen Prine quite a few times over the past 25 years, but this would be special, because he would be playing Reno just a few days before Caroline’s eleventh birthday. We bought tickets but didn’t tell her about it, and so the plans were made for her surprise.
In the weeks leading up to the show, I sent a couple over-the-transom emails to John Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records in Nashville. I had no contacts there, no personal email addresses, no angle to work. I was just a clueless guy with a send button – just some dad asking out of the blue if John Prine might do him a favor. To my great surprise, I received a reply from the folks at Oh Boy, who had passed my message along to John’s wife, Fiona, who generously offered to help.
On the evening of the concert, Friday, October 6, 2017, we told Caroline that we were taking her out for her birthday, but that we couldn’t give her any details. When we parked at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts she became more curious. When we covered her eyes as we walked past the sign announcing that night’s act, the suspense intensified. Even once inside the auditorium and in our seats, Caroline had no idea what the performance would be.
When John Prine ambled onstage her eyes opened wide and a huge smile broke across her face. In that moment I remember thinking how strange and lovely it was that I had somehow become a guy with a 10-year-old daughter whose hero was John Prine. Perhaps it was a situation as inevitable as it was unlikely.
John Prine played and played that night. As he neared the end of the show he grabbed a new pick, stepped up to the microphone, and said “I hear Caroline Branch is about to be 11, so I just wanted to wish her a happy birthday.” Holding the pick in his cupped hand he shaded his eyes from the stage lights and scanned the crowd.
When Caroline heard her own name come out of John Prine’s mouth it was if she were struck by what she would later describe as the best kind of lightning that anybody anytime anywhere could ever possibly imagine. In that moment of visceral surprise, Caroline was paralyzed with shock and joy. As Prine continued to scan the audience, I encouraged her to stand up.
It is a moment I will never forget. Nearly 1,500 people sat. One stood. And then Caroline began waving her little arms over her head, crossing them back and forth with all her might the way a person on a desert island would wave at the plane that might spot them and take them home. People around us noticed this and turned to look at Caroline, and then more people turned to look at what those people were looking at, and suddenly Caroline found herself standing in a sea of smiling people, all looking at her as she stood waving.
“Well, maybe it’s past her bedtime,” Prine said, not able to make out the wonderful scene unfolding beyond the footlights and in the shadows beneath the balcony. “But tell her I said happy birthday.”
John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others. If you don’t think what Prine did for my kid was a great kindness, then you simply don’t remember what it is to be 10 years old.
So thank you, Fiona, and the good folks at Oh Boy. And my deepest gratitude to John for showing my daughter that a small gesture of kindness can be an act of immense significance – that in a world that often feels daunting and uncertain, even a couple of chords can get you into heaven.