By Dwight A. Moody
From 1970, when he burst upon the Chicago folk music scene, to his untimely COVID-related death in 2020, John Prine established himself as one of the most original and gifted songwriters of his generation. He is often included in a list that names Bob Dylan, Gordan Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein, all of whom he counted as friends and collaborators.
A dominant element of Prine’s poetic vocabulary is religion, even though he himself was not a church-going person (at least after childhood). The Christian imagery and story play a compelling role in his work and succeed in connecting his broader message to his audience that was, and is, more religiously observant than he was.
The best illustration of this is his song “Sam Stone” (John Prine, 1971). This song is about a soldier coming home from war only to live and die with addiction. It may be the most powerful and famous of all his songs; it certainly turns upon the most memorable line John Prine ever wrote, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” But it is the chorus that takes us from the horror of war to the hope of religion: “Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.”
Here, Prine invokes the core of the Christian message: the death of Jesus, supposedly bringing hope to the world, especially to the sinner. But in this one instance, for this one lone drug addict, the death of Jesus brought nothing, was not able to save this one soul from the ravages of drugs. The sadness of the story is intensified by the implied impotence of the Savior. Or so Prine sang. Whether or not it provides insight into his assessment of religion, especially his own childhood religion, is unclear. But at the core, it provides an introduction, early in his writing and singing career, to the regular role played by religion in his music.
John Prine encountered religion early in his life, much of it connected to Kentucky. Two of John Prine’s early and most popular songs evoke the times and terrain of the place where his parents were born, Kentucky. “Paradise” (John Prine, 1986) describes a small town on the Green River and how it was “carried away” by “Mr. Peabody’s coal train.” Religion plays a minor role in the song except for the reference to death and heaven (see below).
n a similar vein, and perhaps referring to the same displaced community, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” (Sweet Revenge, 1989) eulogizes the man who influenced him greatly. “We would go down there [to Kentucky] as often as we could” the grown-up and moderately famous Prine says into a camera sitting in the front yard of his boyhood home in Chicago. In the song, Prine describes his mother as graduating from college in Bowling Green, a reference to what is now called Western Kentucky University. Before that, he remembers how his grandfather would take him to church on Sundays, “stain glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”
Like his frequent lyrical references to porches and screen doors, Prine reaches back into his childhood experiences of religion to enrich his music. While religious practice may not have stayed with him throughout his long and storied career, religious ideas and memories did. “I remember everything” (2020) Prine famously wrote and sang at the end of his career; and although he does not mention the images and vocabulary of religion in that song, his body of work illustrates how thoroughly and powerfully the religion of his childhood shaped his imagination. Take, for instance, his song “Spanish Pipedream” (John Prine, 1971). It tells the story of a soldier visiting a topless bar only to encounter a dancer that admonished him to
Blow up your TV,
Throw away your paper,
Go to the country,
Build you a home.
Plant a little garden,
Eat a lot of peaches.
Try and find Jesus on your own.
Which they proceeded to do, prompting the end of the song:
Had a lot of children.
Fed ‘em on peaches.
They all found Jesus on their own.
“Finding Jesus” may allude to the once-common phrase used as a euphemism for getting religion, or accepting Christ, or being converted. At the very least, we recognize that its use here disconnects true religion or spirituality from institutional or organizational affiliation, something that would continue through both Prine’s life and his music. After all, it was (according to the song) a topless dancer rather than a congregational minister that gave him counsel on how to live as a follower of Jesus! That is both comical and commentary!
One of the most humorous biblical settings for a John Prine song is “Sweet Revenge” (Sweet Revenge, 1973), which uses the story of Noah and the ark to have some fun:
I got kicked off Noah’s Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything but one of me
And when the rains came tumbling down
I held my breath, and I stood my ground
And I watched that ship go sailing out to sea.
Not all the religion in the songs of John Prine is so flippant and funny, especially those that deal with heaven. “John believed very strongly in heaven,” his wife and widow Fiona said after he died, and his songs testify to that. Heaven is the most dominant and persistent religious image of John Prine’s songs. One of the earliest is the social protest song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” (John Prine, 1971). The chorus reads like this:
But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven any more.
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.
Now Jesus don’t like killin’ no matter what the reason’s for.
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven any more.
It is a hilarious song, telling the story of how one man was given so many flag decals (as a sign of patriotism) which he proceeded to affix to the window of his car that he lost the ability to see where he was going, ran off the road, crashed into a tree, and died. He wrote and sang it during the Vietnam War era but reprised it during the Middle East wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
About the same time, he wrote the equally funny song “Please Don’t Bury Me Down in the Cold, Cold Ground” (Sweet Revenge 1973). It tells the story of an accident at home that left his head cracked and his soul, well … “Oh what a feeling! When my soul went through the ceiling, and on up into heaven I did ride.” Once there, the angels recounted to him his last words which became both the title of the song and the first line of the chorus, a plea to avoid burial. “I’d rather have ‘em cut me up and pass me all around.” He proceeds, in the song, to describe where each part of his body should end up!
Then there is the song he wrote after his surgery for cancer and after he quit smoking, which (he confesses on camera) he had done since the age of 14 and to great delight. “When I get to heaven” (The Tree of Forgiveness, 2018) he croons, “I’m going to shake God’s hand …” That is very traditional, I suppose, but the chorus takes us in a different direction:
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail–vodka and ginger ale
Yes, 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 going’ to town.
The references to heaven in the songs of John Prine are too numerous to list here, but none exceed in pathos and spirituality the way heaven is used in the song introduced above, “Paradise” (which is a reference both to his grandparents’ home of origin and also to his own afterlife destiny).
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Prine’s use of religion is the way he flips the traditional script. Two songs illustrate this, and the first is a proper transition at this point because of its use of the idea of heaven.
“Fish and Whistle” is one of his earlier pieces (Bruised Orange, 1978). It is easy to read these words as non-sensical:
I been thinking lately about the people I meet
The carwash on the corner and the hole in the street
The way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet
I’m wondering if I’m gonna see tomorrow.
They are full of nonsense! That disposition may continue into the chorus:
Father, forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us and we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue
And we’ll whistle and go fishing in the heavens
But the idea of mutual forgiveness between us and God is both arresting and original. Even as an educated theologian, I have no recollection of such an idea. Yes, many people respond to life’s disappointments (illness or death, failure, depression, etc.) by blaming God, and sometimes working through this anger toward God can involve a kind of forgiveness: forgiving God for the bad things that have happened in life. This may be what Prine had in mind; but reading all this into his lyrics may be way too much.
A similarly playful song presents this question in another way. I refer to the wonderfully inventive “Everybody” (Diamonds in the Rough, 1972). It is the story of a person bumping into Jesus while on an excursion. The two sit down and start to talk, but it is Jesus that does most of the talking, leading to this chorus:
You see, everybody needs somebody that they can talk to
Someone to open up their ears and let that trouble through
Now you don’t have to sympathize or care what they may do
But everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.
This idea that Jesus is the person that needs somebody to talk to is another example of Prine inverting religious orthodoxy. “He spoke to me of morality, starvation, pain, and sin,” Prine sings. “The whole dang time I only got a few words in.” Then concludes his story with these wonderful lyrics:
Now we sat there for an hour or two just a-eatin’ that Gospel pie.
When around the bend come a terrible wind and lightning lit the sky.
He said, “So long son, I gotta run. I appreciate you listening to me.”
And I believe I heard him sing these words as he skipped out across the sea:
“Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to ….
Everybody, even Jesus!
Inverting religion may be a form of critique, but in other places in his body of work, John Prine is not so subtle. As we might expect of an artist shaped during the 1960s, Prine has a few strong words about the religious establishment, none more so than his ballad “Billy the Bum” (Diamonds in the Rough, 1972). Here is the story of a man with “two twisted legs and a childhood disease.” Prine tells the story in stanza two, then offers his commentary in stanza three:
Now he lived all alone in a run down home
Near the side of the old railroad track
Where the trains used to run carryin’ freight by the ton
Blow the whistle as Billy’d wave back
But the children around Billy’s home town
Seemed to have nothin’ better to do
Then run around his house
With their tongues from their mouth
Make fun of that crippled old fool
Now some folks they wait and some folks they pray
For Jesus to rise up again
But none of these folks in their holy cloaks
Ever took Billy on as a friend
For pity’s a crime and it ain’t worth a dime
To a person who’s really in need
Just treat ’em the same as you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed.
The poetry of John Prine includes very few, if any, descriptions of attending religious services (other than one quoted above, about attending church as a child with his grandfather). But his work is full of a religious sensibility best expressed in one of his finest songs.
“My Mexican Home” (Sweet Revenge, 1973) was written following the early death of his father. It describes hot days without air conditioning in suburban Chicago, and then announces the news:
My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried with a friend by the light of the moon.
The song contains two of the very best lines of poetry in his entre corpus. “The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train” prepares the listener for the news of the death of his father. Then comes this line: “The sun is going down, and the moon is just holding its breath.”
However, neither of these sterling sentences match the phrase that is buried, somewhat, in the chorus. Prine writes and sings:
Mama dear, your boy is here Far across the sea
Waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me.
And I feel a storm all wet and warm not ten miles away
Approaching my Mexican home.
Frankly, I have no idea what the phrase “my Mexican home” means other than the use of a Central American reference to intensify the notion of hot weather; and I can only assume that the boy “far across the sea” is a reference to Prine himself serving as a soldier stationed in Germany. But I direct your attention to a most provocative phase: “… that sacred core that burns inside of me” may be the best description of the religious and spiritual life of the great lyricist, composer, and performer John Prine. His writings utilize the Christian and Biblical imagery he was given as a child, but that early exposure to such things also cultivated in him a spirit that treasured kindness, humility, gratitude, and justice, all in keeping with such transcendent texts as that of the Hebrew prophets and the Jewish rabbi himself. We just need a word or two about humor, whimsy, or plain silliness to touch all the bases in the John Prine game of life.
No song picks up this abiding spiritual reality like his wonderful tune “Boundless Love” (The Tree of Forgiveness, 2018). The chorus could be sung in any Christian gathering as the praise of God and Jesus.
Surround me with your boundless love.
Confound me with your boundless love.
I was drowning in a sea lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love.
But the verses describe a more earthy scene, that of a lover and her beloved, of two people, perhaps a husband and a wife:
I woke up this morning to a garbage truck
Looks like this old horseshoe’s done run out of luck
If I came home, would you let me in
Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin?
But verses two and three can be read either way, especially this one:
If by chance, I should find myself at risk
Of falling from this jagged cliff
I look below and I look above
I’m surrounded by your boundless love.
The Judeo-Christian literature has many examples of love poetry that live on the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine, the sexual and the spiritual. These lyrics by John Prine would fit right in!!
Three parts silliness mixed with two parts spirituality may be a good way to describe the poetry/lyrics of John Prine. But it is not as good as Prine’s own reference to “that sacred core that burns inside of me.” Childhood religion mixed with lived-life experience conspired to craft in Prine’s imagination songs that oscillate between these two poles—silliness and spirituality—in ways that make his music both powerful and memorable, in ways that make his songs connect with the sacred core that burns inside the rest of us.
“John wasn’t pious” long-time friend Holly Gleason wrote the day after John Prine died. But he was spiritual, a quality embedded deep in his soul as a child through the overtly religious aspects of his formation in the Christian religion. His talent for describing life and reflecting on the ups and downs of his own life allowed him to put both into original and memorable lyrics. In one song, referenced above, he described this process as “eatin’ that gospel pie.” And here we are, two plus years later, still enjoying that gospel pie whose recipe was known only to John Prine, and he didn’t know it until he sat down to write or sing.
 See the 2017 article in Rolling Stone: “At Chandler’s [Melrose Billiard Parlor in Nashville], we end up discussing religion. Prine believes in God, but he’s sick of the way evangelical Christians use the Bible as a political weapon against gays and transgender people.” “John Prine at 70: Inside His Wild Past, Grounded Present,” Rolling Stone, accessed July 3, 2022.
 Prine said (in another interview with Rolling Stone magazine) that this double line of lyrics was the one of his entire career he was most proud of. See “John Prine: 25 Essential Songs” (rollingstone.com), accessed on July 3, 2022.
 Peabody Coal bought all the land, mined it for goal, and built a coal-burning power plant. Later, the whole operation was absorbed into the Tennessee Valley Authority.
 See the YouTube video: youtube.com/watch?v=x-SKCWXoryU accessed on July 2, 2022.
 This is according to the song lyrics, but Prine is on record in several interviews admitting that he sometimes changed the details of a story in order to select words that made his lyrics sound right, i.e. rhyme.
 Prine wrote and recorded it at his home just before his illness and death in 2020.
 See also the song “Jesus: The Missing Years” (The Missing Years, 1991) for a similar use of religious imagery.
 His widow Fionna did exactly that, scattering half of his ashes on the Green River and burying the rest with his parents in Paradise, Kentucky. See note 10 below. The Green River drains much of western Kentucky from Campbellsville to Owensboro and empties into the Ohio River near Hendersonville KY.
 Singer/songwriter Carsie Blanton took the tune of this wonderful Prine song and composed a tribute song, “Fishin with You,” just days after John Prine’s death. Blanton wrote her own lyrics and integrated many quotes and allusions to Prine’s songs, ending with: “Tonight in heaven it must be nice. They’re all eating peaches in Paradise. All them angels lined up in a queue just to go fishing with you, just to go fishing with Jesus, and [Tom] Petty, and you.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2-2pZFtBxo.
 See for instance his war-inspired song “Sam Stone” and also “Take the Star out of the Window.”
 William Mason “Bill” Prine (August 24, 1915-August 16, 1971). His grave is in Paradise, Kentucky.
 See her article “Down on the Beach the Sand Man Sleeps: Sweet Dreams, John Prine, Sweet Dreams” on her website www.hollygleason.com. Gleason is publishing a book about Prine with the title Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine, due out on December 6, 2022. Perhaps she will have more to say about these things.