Life, Death, and John Prine

The 71-year-old’s songs soundtrack moments of deep pain and joy for many, including writer Jayson Greene.

By JASON GREENE | Pitchfork
When my wife had been in labor for 16 hours, I played her John Prine’s “Everything Is Cool.” She’d begun gasping instead of breathing, climbing into the tub to gather herself. As Prine’s fingerpicking rang out from a tiny speaker, she closed her eyes and smiled.

The song is simple, like all Prine songs, a folk lament with a deliberate pace ideal for slow breathing. Over three chords, the singer-songwriter pines for a loved one who has traveled beyond reach—“Across the sea to an island where the bridges brightly burn/So far away from my land/The valley of the unconcerned.” The valley of the unconcerned—that felt like where our daughter was at that moment. We were stuck somewhere else, whatever you would call such a place: the cul-de-sac of the flustered. Together, we beckoned her: join us. The song looped, my wife’s labor progressed, and our daughter slowly moved closer. The midwife and nurses gathered around my wife, and she started pushing. Everything is cool. Everything’s OK.

When my daughter died two years later, the song rang out again into the stricken silence at her service. This time, it felt like a hymn. The song is pierced halfway through by an image of grace and purification: “I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds just flying through the sky/And they seemed to form a teardrop/From a black-haired angel’s eye/And that tear fell all around me/And it washed my sins away.” A message from our daughter, perhaps, a dispatch from the valley of the unconcerned, to which she returned. Everything is cool here, guys, she was reassuring us. Everything’s OK.

I tell all of this to John Prine, and he listens gravely, attentively. His wife Fiona has just brought me into his Manhattan hotel suite and left us alone. “Well, since you’ve been through what you’ve been through, you deserve to know what the song is about,” he says,

his voice so gravelly it sounds broken up by radio static. “It wasn’t about death, so much as about the death of a relationship. You just met the ‘black-haired angel,’” he says, nodding in Fiona’s direction. “I met her chasing after my soon-to-be ex-wife. I had malice in my heart, as angry as I could be, like I was going to find somebody and hurt them. It wasn’t like me at all; I wanted to get rid of that feeling. And while I was running around after my ex, I ran into Fiona, and she washed my sins away. I don’t know if I ever told her that. I think she knows it though.”

I ask if it surprises him that his divorce song would be my death song, that it would speak to me so clearly of grief and grace, redemption and transfiguration. He thinks for a second, then smiles. “Well, there’s only two things,” he says. “There’s life, and there’s death. So it’s a 50/50 shot.”

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