“. . . John was in his early 20s when he wrote “Hello in There” from the perspective of an old man sharing an empty nest with his lonely wife. Hearing him sing the song after decades of hard living and surviving numerous illnesses brought new meaning to the lyrics, now delivered by a man who had caught up with the character he created. John always said when he grew up, he wanted to be an old person.
John was known for his ability to tell stories that related universal emotions through the lens of his gigantic imagination. He constructed what Bob Dylan called “Midwestern mind trips” from the tedium of the everyday, and he was a master at concealing the work involved.
His songs sounded like they’d been easy to write, like they’d just fallen out of his mind like magic. He was praised for his dry humor and loved for his kindness and generosity. John had the courage to write plainly about the darkest aspects of the American experience in songs like “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; “Paradise,” about the devastating effects of strip mining on a Kentucky town; and “The Great Compromise,” about his disillusionment with his country. Among his peers in the legendary Nashville songwriting community of the 1980s, his songs were the gold standard.
Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.”
I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, “No, you’re not.” Then a light bulb went on, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right. John always got the details right. If the artist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society, John had the cleanest mirror of anyone I have ever known. Sometimes it seemed like he had a window, and he would climb right through.”
David Lindsay: John Prine performing Sam Stone from his debut album John Prine in the 1970’s. #johnprine #samstone #veterans
This is another song, I just met for the first time. I confess, I didn’t pay enough attention to this guy when I was collecting and performing. I heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival, when I was college age, and fell for him. But when I got home, I decided his work that I knew didn’t work for me. I was truly in love at the time with traditional songs and ballads. I vaguely recall that I worried, his material might not be around in a few hundred years.