Angel from Maywood

John Prine

John Prine and I are both from Maywood, though not the same one. His Maywood was in Illinois and mine was in New Jersey. Not a real connection, but one among many small doors souls might open to common likes.

One of those we share is country. Both of us were domesticated rural animals, born only nine months apart. (My son, another John Prine fan, just told me that he and John share a cool birthday: 10/10.)

I found John during my first job in radio, at a country station in rural New Jersey (yes, there is such a thing). At the station we got about a cubic foot of new albums every week. Sometimes more. Most we never listened to, obeying advice from services paid to thresh musical wheat from chaff. But I’d take the home as many rejects as I could, and plow through them for stuff I liked and that maybe the station would play. Sometimes the station would add a song, but most of the time I’d just keep the good ones and bring the rest back.

One of my keepers was John Prine’s Sweet Revenge, best known for Dear Abby, which was kind of a novelty song. But the song that knocked me out most on that album was “Grandpa Was a Carpenter.” Here’s the refrain:

Grandpa was a carpenter, he built houses, stores and banks
Chain-smoked camel cigarettes, and hammered nails in planks
He would level on the level, he shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower, cause Lincoln won the war

This called to mind my own father, a chain-smoking Republican and lifelong carpenter who served as a phone operator for Eisenhower after the end of WWII. Anyway, my love of John Prine and his songs began then, and has lasted forty-seven years, so far.

There are so many great songs. “Angel from Montgomery.” “Illegal Smile.” “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.” “Sam Stone.” One-liners like, “A question ain’t a question if you know the answer too” (from “Far From Me”). But my favorite is “Paradise.” Here’s one verse and refrain:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Kind of like they did here:

kentucky

It’s called mountaintop removal mining. That photo is not of Muhlenberg County, which is west of there; but it’s been tortured and stripped so it’ll do.

Like many fans, I’d heard John was sick with COVID-19. Given his health history, news yesterday of his death was no surprise. I wonder now if the final verse of “Paradise” will become prophecy:

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