Finding my way back to the garden with John Prine

When I was a senior in high school I had a dear friend tragically die after being hit by a car in Tuscaloosa, AL. My friend, Ed, was a church camp friend from Montgomery, and our group of friends was spread out all over the state of Alabama. Our age, early exposure to spirituality, racing hormones, and the time we spent in nature made this group feel invincible and unbreakable. Losing Ed was a reckoning, one that many of us still grapple with, and the anthem for our loss was John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”. To this day I cannot hear that song without being transported to that moment in my life, and the love of loss that surrounded it.

While the 17 year old me found power in Prine’s words at a critical moment, I’ve been listening to John Prine my whole life. My early years were spent in East Tennessee, and we would summer in an idyllic community of log cabins and neighbors that had been friends for generations. John Prine could be heard on playing on the radio, or on cassette tapes, with folks strumming along with their guitars on front porches throughout many of my childhood memories.

As a 17 year old, I found my way back to the songs that were a part of the backdrop of my youth. From “Angel from Montgomery” I found my way back to John Prine (album), and my catalog grew. I was surprised to find I knew so many of the songs and found myself having flashbacks to parts of my childhood.

College came quickly, and John Prine’s poetry was a subtle backdrop on so many days. I recall sitting outside in the sun, not talking much, and soaking in my surroundings with the whispers of Prine flowing out of someone’s car with the windows rolled down, or with the stereo speakers facing a window. And a new anthem came, late at night, when we were deep into a party, with 10, 20, 30 or more people singing along to “Illegal Smile” at the top of our lungs.

My favorite Prine moments really come from my 20’s, however, and are those quiet and still moments, when my husband and I would play a whole album, uninterrupted, while quietly making a slow big weekend meal together.

Do you remember that feeling? Listening to a whole album with someone you love, or a good friend, not talking much but taking in the songs together. In the age of digital music, on-demand songs of choice, and being entirely too busy, I feel like it’s a lost art. Listening. Feeling.

Last week I listened to a new Phish album, uninterrupted, with my husband. It is the first time we have been still and listened in a really long time. This pandemic is the only reason we have been forced to slow down and have the time. This pandemic is also taking the people we love – friends, loved ones, and the artists that have made our lives so rich.

My heart broke this morning when I learned of Prine’s death. I came into my living room, tears streaming down my face, and immediately put The Forgiveness Tree on our record player. We bought the album when it came out in 2018 – and I know we have played it but I had never listened to it. I cried and listened, and when my kids needed breakfast I turned it up and they took the hint and made it for themselves.

If you haven’t listened you should, as he sang his farewell songs throughout the album – like much of his life – but in the craggy older post-cancer voice we’ve heard lately.

I am determined not to lose my John Prine moments going forward. I am going to make more time to be still and embrace the simple, poetic joys and sorrows of life. I am going to listen and take the time to feel my way all the way through.

The image Prine paints of taking off his wristwatch in “When I Get to Heaven” – the closing track on The Forgiveness Tree – resonates deeply with me today. Let’s do it y’all – let’s not wait to get to heaven to reclaim our time and joy. If there is something we can claim from COVID-19 when the world opens back up, let it be that.

I’m going out to work in my garden. What about you?

– Tappan Vickery