The Mystery of John Prine

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery,
Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to.
To believe in this living is a hard way to go.

A few days ago, those lyrics flew in from who knows where, settled in my mind and stayed there. Would not budge. It had been years seen I’d seen John Prine in concert or even played his music. So what was one of his signature songs doing in my head? And why wouldn’t it leave?

After viewing a video of John performing at the 2004 Philadelphia Folk Festival (, I had my answer.

There he was, the troubled troubadour himself—much the worse for years of whiskey and worry and general wear. But what a talent. And the reason his music was stuck in my head, I realized, was because of its sheer brilliance.

So here’s the mystery:

Why did John Prine’s star rise so low and set so early, when so many mediocre talents have enjoyed glowing careers? And why has he never received the credit due to his genius? I mean, even the emcee at the folk festival insisted that Angel from Montgomery had been written by Bonnie Raitt. Oh, of course there were the dissipated years of drugs and debauchery. But for most artists, a phase like that simply adds luster to their myth.

Ah well, forget the questions. Just enjoy the man’s genius. And if you’re up for an emotional challenge, listen to him sing every verse of Hello In There and try not to shed a single tear: .

You know, old trees just go stronger.
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
But old people they grow lonely
Waiting for someone to say,
Hello in there.

Thanks, John. And hello again.

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