Cucuron, France, 2016
With news today of John Prine’s death, I’m carried back to the south of France. Just outside the small, rural town of Cucuron, the sounds of a house concert float out of a whitewashed villa. I am there, armed with my half size travel guitar, singing Souvenirs, a Prine song from 1972. It’s a composition full of nostalgic references, yet cut with a deep ambivalence about reminiscing. I didn’t know it then, but Prine loves to mess with the obvious in his songs, loves knocking the listener sideways with uncommon truths sung with pith.
It’s a new tune to me, one that Ivo, my soon-to-be father-in-law, has drawn to my attention. He loves the sound of Prine’s voice and the spare but evocative imagery of the lyrics. Ivo and I are both interested in language, and we discussed Prine’s use of dialect (‘boughten’, meaning ‘bought’) in the chorus.
Memories they can’t be boughten
They can’t be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years
To get those souvenirs
And I don’t know how they slipped away from me
I tell Ivo that I am familiar with Prine’s work, having once written a review for The Missing Years, his 1991 album. It was a good LP, but not one that hooked me as a fan. That would come later.
So, I teach myself Souvenirs and add it to my small set list. In my first international performance, my tiny audience of future in-laws offer me an encouraging round of applause at show’s end.
I don’t give John Prine a lot more attention until 2019 when I took a chance on his recently released album, The Tree of Forgiveness. While his voice is shot through with the after effects of treatment for neck and lung cancer, his vocals lend a rich, warm, knockabout tone to his new songs. At 71, his ability to look at life and report on it glints like a new blade. There was so much heart in this new album, I bought a ticket for his performance at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. It was a gig for the ages, with Prine in excellent form and voice, backed by a crack band. My pick for the show of the year.
Today I learned that John Prine had died following complications related to the coronavirus. He was one of the few songwriters Johnny Cash turned to for inspiration. Kris Kristofferson has called him “the greatest thing since Dylan”. And Bob Dylan once said “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
Souvenirs is one of those beautiful songs.
John Prine 1946 – 2020
Stereo Story # 497