John Prine death: Singer was every ounce the man you'd hope him to be

Early Monday morning, I dreamt about John Prine. He was plump, happy, on stage at a music festival, singing a song with his wife.

It wasn’t the first time I’d dreamt about him. But, knowing he was in critical condition in a hospital last week after contracting COVID-19, this one felt urgent.

I got up, Googled his name — nothing. Thank God. I felt lucky. He was still with us.

Luck can be a four-letter word, though. On Tuesday night, Prine’s family announced that he died from complications due to the disease. He was 73.

Ever since I bought a copy of “Sweet Revenge” for my brother for his birthday some seven years ago, Prine has been my hero.

His music is, as cowboys say, four chords and the truth. But it’s a different truth than most folkies tell — a funny truth, an ironic truth, a weird truth. In it, small-town couples make love from 10 miles away, trains flatten altar boys, and God can be forgiven over a fishing line.

Even when I became a music critic — well past the age of fan-boy — I thought of Prine as something more than a songwriter. (So did another Dylan: Prine lived long enough to turn his heroes into fans.)

He was less a musician than a sort of Buddhist rinpoche, I decided. I had no interest in reviewing his albums, but I’d have sold my soul to talk to him.

And on a cold winter’s morning in 2018, my cellphone lit up with a Nashville number. I was the music editor of The Denver Post at the time, and was granted an interview ahead of a tour. Prine was coming through town to support his last album, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” which in one song has him fantasizing about smoking a 9-mile-long cigarette in heaven.

How lucky can one man get? Forget the countless rejections, the freelance pay, the bored rockstar interviews — for the next 45 minutes it was all worth it.

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Prine was — and this is rare, talking to musicians — every ounce the man you’d hope him to be. He laughed at my worst jokes, spoke at length about his love of pork chops and rattled off 30-year-old anecdotes with a poetic attention to detail.

Case in point: I asked him about his first show in Colorado, at Tulagi’s in Boulder, opening a week of shows for comedian George Carlin.

“I was there for a week. The walls looked like the Flintstones. The girls looked like they were in The Playboy Club — real skimpy pseudo leather,” Prine said. “George called the audience beehives and bowties.”

Prine recounted how he’d played most small towns throughout the state early in his career, thanks to his friendship with Colorado promoter Chuck Morris. (“I wish he’d stop wearing his golf clothes,” Prine joked to me about Morris. “I’ve been on him for years trying to tell him checks and stripes don’t go together.”)

His memories of his first tour were as colorful as you’d imagine.

“Colorado had a reputation. Smoke a lot of dope, lot of pretty girls. It was a fun place to play,” Prine said. “Me and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot covered 12 cities in a broken-down RV full of strange characters. It was like Ken Kesey’s bus.”

Around the fourth time he said “pork chop,” Prine was no longer just my theoretical wiseman. He was my spirit grandpa. So, as the conversation wound to a close, I couldn’t help but ask him for some grandsonly advice.

I was growing my hair out, like he had in fits on his album covers through the years. So I asked him: When does a man know to cut his hair?

“For me, I usually cut it when I broke up with a woman. And they were the only reason I had long hair in the first place. When you get older, like me, it’ll be the wallpaper.”

He chuckled, then said goodbye.

I was still turning his advice over, like a souvenir, three weeks later, when he came to Denver’s Buell Theater for a show with Nathaniel Rateliff.

My hair was still long. I was with my girlfriend — now ex — watching him sing “All The Best” with Rateliff, their voices a shearing light in the dark theater.

And while he sang about losing love — “like a Christmas card: decorate a tree and throw it in the yard” — we felt it course through us.

That night feels like a dream now, too.

There will never be another like John Prine. But if you’ve ever spent a night with his music, you know how unlikely it was there was even one.

You can read Dylan Owens’ 2018 interview with John Prine for The Denver Post here.

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