After a weeks-long battle with COVID-19, the mailman John Prine died on April 7. He was 73 years old.
Born and raised in suburban Illinois, Prine actually worked as a mailman for just a handful of years in the 1960s, after graduating from high school. But he spent the rest of his life delivering the goods.
One of the more prominent casualties of the pandemic, Prine was a much-loved singer and songwriter who made timeless music that seems especially attuned to the turbulent year of his death. In the midst of our current crises, his songs seem to have grown in stature. They teach us to live and let live, and they often make note of those people who don’t.
On June 11, Prine’s friends and family will present “Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine” on various platforms including YouTube and Facebook. Hosted by Oh Boy Records, the Nashville label that Prine launched in 1981 — years before other musicians began to recognize the value of artistic independence — the event will feature testimonials from a lineup of admirers that was yet to be announced at press time.
Whoever takes part, the show is sure to charm, as Prine always did. He was “the sweetest person ever,” said Rosanne Cash when Prine came to Boston in 2016 to accept PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
“Nice of Rosanne to say that,” Prine told the Globe a couple of years later, while touring behind his last album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” “I always thought I was pretty normal.”
Prine’s songs combined common-sense wisdom with uncommon humility and self-deprecation. From “Hello in There,” a lament for the loneliness of old age that he wrote when he was barely in his 20s, to the boyish pledges of “When I Get to Heaven,” the last song on his final album (“I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl”), he pulled off the neat trick of embodying an old soul while remaining forever young at heart.
You wouldn’t call him a protest singer, yet some of his best-known songs make subtle, evergreen arguments on the big issues: the psychological toll of war (“Sam Stone”), the environmental devastation of strip-mining (“Paradise”), the fickleness of fate (“That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round”).
Prine skewered empty gestures of patriotism on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” And he roasted those who have no regard for others on the weary ballad “Some Humans Ain’t Human”:
Some humans ain’t human
Though they walk like we do
They live and they breathe
Just to turn the old screw
Years ago Prine decided that you could divide the world between good guys and, well, people who “ain’t kind,” as the song goes (though in conversation he used a choice two-syllable epithet for them).
“I realized that most of the people I met who came off as [jerks], they had a problem,” he said. “Some of ‘em lived long enough to work it out. Some didn’t.”
Prine had problems of his own, most notably in the health department. In 1998, just entering his 50s, he had part of his neck removed while fighting cancer. Fifteen years later, he underwent surgery for lung cancer. He gave up cigarettes, but he never stopped longing for another one.
Upon arriving at the pearly gates, as he sang on “When I Get to Heaven,” he’d toast the occasion with “a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale/ Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” His last refrain proved to be one of his most memorable.
It’s a thoroughly joyful song, one that grows into a sing-along. That’s the way John Prine lived. Y’all come.
He loved hot dogs, bad jokes, and the word “goofy.” He liked Christmas so much, he kept a tree year-round and stocked his jukebox with old holiday songs. He bought cheap souvenirs in every airport he passed through. He accumulated so much stuff that his wife’s sister flew over from Ireland to archive it all.
“I didn’t realize I had things to archive,” he told the Globe.
But it’s his songs that make up his radiant legacy, each one its own snow globe.
“In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up sittin’ on a rainbow,” as he sang so adorably with Iris DeMent, the year after his first cancer scare.
“I ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” he’d sung a few years before that. “I ain’t hurtin’ no one.”
These are simple thoughts, but such thoughts sure can seem profound in times of strife. His songs are inscrutable, yes, but they’re also dead-on.
Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt — to Prine, those guys were the poets.
“I’m just trying to do words that bounce off your ear the way they bounce off the tongue,” he said. “No, I’m not a poet. I ain’t a poet.”
Kristofferson, for one, begged to differ. "If God's got a favorite songwriter,” he once said, “it's John Prine."
Early in his career Prine wrote a song called “The Great Compromise,” in which he compared this country to a young woman you bring to a drive-in movie. When you go off to get popcorn, she ditches.
“I really love America,” he said, attempting to explain the song. “I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.