Wednesday, April 8, 2020

When I Get To Heaven - Remembering John Prine

It was mid-October 1988. Nashville was a dump. Boarded-up, lower broadway had more sex-shops and massage parlors than live music venues.

It was my first time in Music City USA and after attending the CMA Awards as a journalist, all I wanted, besides making contacts with record label promo-heads, was to see some decent live music. Both tasks were quite fruitless. What I had envisioned as a "Sing Me Back Home"-journey, was rather tone-deaf. Even so in the middle of "Music Row," I stayed mostly in my room at the old Shoney's Inn on Demonbreun, watching stupid game shows on TV and trying to order mail-order greatest hits compilations hawked off during the commercials. But my - at that time Swiss zip code - just wouldn't work either. The only highlight was a visit down the street by Step One Records and its founder Ray Pennington. He, the writer of "I'm A Ramblin' Man" didn't only load me up with the newest releases (Ray Price, Buddy Emmons, Curtis Potter, etc.) from the label, but also suggested to go and visit the by now legendary Bluebird Cafe.

A short cab ride passing all the music-publishing offices on 17th street and then 21st street took me to the half-empty place. Some people were already playing and I took a seat at the small bar towards the back. There was a guy already sitting there and we started some small talk which quickly evolved into a "change-the-world" conversation, including politics, Nashville, Europe, and general wisdom, mostly ignoring the pickers in the circle.

Then we were suddenly interrupted, one of the pickers in the circle, rose his voice and announced special guest, John Prine. The buddy I talked to for the last or so hour, turned to me, told me he that he will be right, so we can finish our conversation and stepped up on stage and started playing. After a short set of about six songs, he came back to the bar, grabbed the same chair and sat down. I felt bad and apologized for not recognizing him earlier, his last album "GERMAN AFTERNOONS" didn't really have a portrait-cover and he brushed it away: "Instead of having a meaningful conversation, you probably would have asked me stuff about me, my career and songs or songwriting, like this I had a really pleasurable night."

Sure our conversation drifted for a short while to his career, he asked me for a card, so I could promote his new album "JOHN PRINE LIVE" on the radio, but we soon found ourselves talking about the world. We were the last ones, besides the working crew to leave the Bluebird and this evening by happenstance became one of my favorite memories. Needless to say that when I arrived back in Switzerland after staying a week in Texas, I had a package from "Oh Boy" records in my mailbox, even with a zip code that worked.
I probably could have written a more in-depth retrospective of his music, his career, and his genial writing, but other people have already done that way better than me - one of the best obituaries is by Holly Gleason.

So, John, tonight have a cocktail, start your band and please play one for my friend Mike, who preceded you, just a week ago. As a Vietnam vet, he was a huge fan of yours and we often listened to your songs either at the bar or while we were doing chores around the house.