The Songwriter's Songwriter John Prine
Back in the early 70's, while going to college, I stopped in to my favorite hang out Terry's Bar shortly before noon and the blonde haired guy who did the clean up was running late and still working. He was mopping the floor to a lively tune called "Dear Abby". I asked him "who the hell is this guy you're listening to" and he remarked "John Prine". Now, keep in mind this was during the Beatles and Rolling Stones era and "Dear Abby" sounded so out of place, a mix between hillbilly, folk and twangy country. To my ears, it was way out of the mainstream. I asked why would he be listening to this stuff and he remarked "he doesn't have any hits, but he has a lot of great songs". At the time, I thought, this bar keep had no musical taste.
Carry forward to the late 70's, actually 1977, and I was on the East Coast leaving the Boston area (Elvis had just passed away) and intending to drive back to Salisbury, MD with my girlfriend at the time. I looked at a map and realized we weren't that awfully far from Union, New Jersey where my Vietnam buddy Al Torsiello, whom I hadn't seen since 1969 lived. It didn't take much to alter our course so we showed up at the Al and Francine Torsiello residence virtually unannounced.
I didn't know Al also played the guitar until he pulled his Ovation out and began playing and singing John Prine songs and I was reintroduced to Prine's music. Al had several John Prine albums and we listened to all of them over and over again as we consumed several beers for days on end. When we left New Jersey, I had a new found respect for John Prine's music. Actually, it wasn't respect, I loved his music.
Shortly after this trip, I began writing original songs and I was heavily influenced by the singer-songwriters of the day including Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, James Taylor and of course John Prine. Slowly but surely, I started embracing the story- telling style of John Prine in many of my songs.
Once I became very familiar with John Prine's music, I looked for opportunities to see him in concert. I attended a Montgomery County Fair in Maryland on a Friday afternoon and Steve Goodman writer of the huge hit "City of New Orleans" was performing and he was great. During his performance, he mentioned he was bringing a surprise guest to the stage and walking slowly up the steps with a long neck Bud in his hands and a grin on his face came John Prine. Together they performed three of Prine's songs and I was hooked on his live performances and easy going on stage manner and humble and carefree personality. Goodman announced Prine would be playing at a Baltimore bar, whose name I have since forgotten, on the next night and I was there as well for the entire performance.
I've also had the opportunity to attend two Prine concerts at the Grand Theater in Oshkosh and one in Milwaukee at the Avalon Theater and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. Prine had a way of hooking you into his songs with the opening line and he never let you go. When he would perform his ballads, he had the audience in the palm of his hands and everybody was captivated by this humble, unassuming story teller. He would probably agree that he was not a great singer, but that never mattered. It was the way he presented his songs and the depth of his lyrics that rocked your soul. Someone more famous than John labeled him as the songwriter's songwriter and that's as apt as a description of any to define John Prine.
My personal favorites were "Hello in There" and "Sam Stone" likely because Prine, an army veteran himself, spoke to me as a combat veteran. I'll never forget the haunting lines of "we lost Davy in the Korean War, and I still don't know what for, don't matter anyhow in "Hello in There" and "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose" in the song about a heroin addicted Vietnam vet in "Sam Stone". Prine could say a mouthful in a few words.
Moving forward to November 2011, I called my Vietnam vet buddy Al Torsiello who had been dabbling in songwriting himself and I asked if he wanted to write a CD about our Vietnam combat experiences in 1968 and he didn't hesitate and said yes. I told him my lyricist Ricki E. Bellos would be polishing our lyrics. So together we wrote ten songs very quickly. I wrote the melodies and contributed some of the lyrics while Al and Ricki also focused on the lyrics. Jon Statham performed most of the vocals except for three songs that two of my Ft. Myers Beach buddies/performers honored us with their vocals. Rick Robinson, a Vietnam vet proudly sang "Jody" and Dave Collaton sang "Ambush" and "Pissin and Moanin" and said he was honored to do so. Unfortunately Rick passed away two years ago and Dave sadly passed away two days ago. I miss both of them as people and artists.
With John Prine and "Sam Stone" in mind, I crafted a melody and some of the lyrics for a song called "Nobody Cared". Al and Ricki worked together to finalize the lyrics. It was a heartfelt song about the way society treated Vietnam veterans upon our return. It was heavily influenced by my and Al's love for John Prine's music. It was the last song on our CD Vietnam: There and Back and it was arranged by my old "Paulbearers" band mate Glen Wuest and produced by Jim Hendrick. The song was also featured in a documentary about homeless vets in LA called "Duty, Honor, Country: Betrayal" written and produced by Bill Dumas.
I pitched the song to John Prine through Oh Boy Records in Nashville but I never heard a word from him. I was disappointed at the time, but soon forgot about it. Rarely does unsolicited material get to the people for whom it's intended.
This morning I woke up and learned John Prine passed away from the scourge we're going through with the pandemic Covid19. John had survived two previous bouts with cancer but his lungs could not weather this very pronounced eastern storm. I was deeply saddened by his passing, because like for many of his fans, John Prine was almost family.
My blog is Viewing the War through Music and I could not bypass John Prine's contributions to the musical landscape and to the country he served in uniform during the Vietnam War without honoring him in this fashion. Although John did not serve in Vietnam, he served during the Vietnam era. Despite never meeting him, I, like all of his fans, felt like I knew him.
Hopefully, John Prine fan's can hear his influences in this song written by me, Ricki E. Bellos and Al Torsiello called "Nobody Cared". Go to: www.soundcloud.com/jim-purtell/nobody-cared to hear it.