A Few Words for John Prine

I’ve been wanting to say a few words about the death of John Prine. It saddens me to write those words, and perhaps that’s why I’ve put off writing this post for so long.  So much seems to have happened since then, but here goes.

I came late to the music of John Prine, having only been introduced to him by chance as my wife and I were just starting our relationship about twenty years ago. That’s when I found myself on my wife’s yearly family trip to Crotch Lake in Ontario, Canada. Her father has been going to Crotch Lake since the 1940s, and the cabins at the north end of the lake haven’t changed much since that time. No electricity. No water. No indoor plumbing.  Rustic, sure, but more primitive than many people would enjoy on a vacation. My father-in-law spent two weeks there almost every summer for most of his life, often seeing the same people year after year.

As I stepped into this tradition with my wife’s family, I happened also upon the annual hootenanny, where “campers” shared a spaghetti dinner and afterward settled in for some guitar and singing.  That’s where I first heard John Prine. Angel from Montgomery. Paradise. Those songs existed outside of my listening, but quickly found a place when I came back to civilization.  They were the kind of songs to share with people, suggesting that they might appreciate John Prine, too.

It’s hard to believe, but I now have a fourteen year-old son that goes to Crotch Lake with his grandfather. He likes rap, like many of his classmates—and I still listen to John Prine’s music. In fact, at the beginning of this year, I made a concentrated effort to improve my fingerpicking on the guitar by learning a new John Prine song, Sam Stone.  That was back in January.

It’s early June, today. The yellow forsythia in Northeast Pennsylvania has come and gone.  And John Prine is dead. It’s still hard to believe. It still saddens me.

On the night following his death, my daughter, herself a budding guitarist, and I posted a tribute on Facebook. After playing several songs like Souvenirs, Storm Windows, and Paradise, we settled in on Spanish Pipedream. We played through it a few times while my wife recorded our efforts and then posted the results.  We were heartbroken, but the songs left behind by John made things a little easier.  And I’m happy to say that I’ve almost mastered Sam Stone, and I’m working on others such as That’s the Way the World Goes Round.

My son has even turned into a fan of John Prine.  I’ve heard music coming from his bedroom, from the basement, from his earbuds—lots of Prine tunes—in fact, that’s all he was listening to for a while.  He even picked up my guitar for a couple of weeks, learning to play some beginner chords.  He hasn’t played for a while, but the guitar is still in his room, leaning there with his fishing gear while he contemplates another trip to Crotch Lake.  Perhaps, he will be able to get there, despite the situation we find ourselves in at this moment.

One thing’s sure, though, as I write these words. He’s gained a new appreciation for John Prine’s music. His favorite song right now is probably Please Don’t Bury Me.  I love it, too.  It’s a great song.  In the refrain, Prine sings again and again, “Please don’t bury me down in the cold, cold ground. No, I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around. Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes and the deaf can take both my ears if they don’t mind the sight.”  And that’s what we’re doing, in a sense, right?  We’re keeping old John from the cold, cold ground. We’re keeping him alive with every song and passing him all around.

Some New Waders and a Stringer Full of Fish Books

There’s just something about wading into a cold stream with a fly rod.  After many years away, I’d almost forgotten the feeling. Last spring, however, I started reading Vermont River by W. D. Wetherell.  It’s a memoir about fly-fishing, a kind of love story about a year in the life of a devout fishermen.  It was just the sort of book to rekindle my pursuit of trout waters. And about this time last year, I bought myself a new pair of waders.

Maybe I should mention that the only reason I picked up this book—actually, it was loaned to me—is because my friend and co-teacher suggested the title.  He’s an avid fisherman, gardener, and general lover of nature.  And sometimes we teach a story called “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” by the same author.  It’s a great story about love and fishing, Wetherell weaving the two topics together, creating an internal conflict within the protagonist about his passion and priorities at a critical moment in his life.  So badly, I want to say more about the story.  It’s one of my favorites, but I don’t want to spoil any pleasure of reading this story for the first time.

As I said then, inspired by Wetherell’s writing, I made a few trips to Snake Creek, along Route 29 in Susquehanna County, searching for some holes that still might have some trout.  It was long after opening day, but I held out hope that I might catch something, but nothing ever materialized.  I was happy, however, just to be out in the water again.  And through the summer, I continued reading the sequels to Wetherell’s Vermont River called Upland River and One River More. I highly recommend them. If I wasn’t catching trout, at least I could read about it, from a writer I’ve really grown to admire.

In the fall, I picked up a book called Blues by John Hersey.  He’s famous for having written Hiroshima, the famous anti-nuclear tome that I often assign to my students for summer reading.  To say that Blues has a totally different feel from Hiroshima is a massive understatement. It’s about fishing for bluefish off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, and besides including fish recipes and poetry, too, the structure takes the form of a dialogue between a seasoned fishermen and a land-lubbing novice.  Another good read, although I enjoyed the books about trout more, probably because of my familiarity with the fish.

At this point, I figured why not tackle a book I always wanted to read: Cod by Mark Kurlansky.  I found a copy at the used bookstore down the street from my house, and at half price, I couldn’t resist and began my journey into the history of cod fishing.  I wasn’t disappointed by this story that chronicles the rise and fall of the cod fishing industry. Far and away, this book had me hooked with its mix of fine-storytelling and history.  It’s chapter after chapter of research into cod fishing, and I found myself enthralled with the details of a fish that used to be so plentiful, such a staple, that no one thought overfishing to be a danger to their very existence, and which as it turned out, destroyed the stock and industry. To be sure, it’s a cautionary tale.

That’s where all this fishy reading took me, by the end, I guess. Sustainability.  In my opinion, that’s the issue underlying all these stories about fishing.  Do we plunder nature or preserve her bounty?  How do we manage the resource?  Whether you’re out fishing in a trawler for a living or stepping into a stream with a fly-rod, it’s always about catching the next fish, the main two enemies seem to be destruction of habitat and overfishing, and better technology, according to Mark Kurlansky, has actually hastened these two problems.  But that’s the lesson of all these books, it seems to me. Fishing is about sustainability, and making sure that we don’t destroy the object of our pleasure. Indeed, our oceans and streams don’t support fish the way they used to so many years ago.

When I first fished Snake Creek over fifteen years ago, I often found trout late in the season, and on one particular day, I caught a beautiful brown trout in a deep hole along the stream. So many years later, I wish I had a picture of that fish, but it was before the proliferation of cell phones with cameras. I did find that hole again last summer, this time with my thirteen-year-old son, but we didn’t catch a thing. It seemed empty of life, although it’s more comforting, perhaps, to think that they simply weren’t on the bite.

I did read one more book after getting through Cod.  Another teacher at school, who’s also an avid fisherman, heard me talking about my recent reading list, and gave me a book called Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht.  The book focuses on the Patagonian toothfish, also known more familiarly as Chilean bass, and the heart of the book is about a long chase of a pirate fish boat poaching in Australian waters.  Like Cod, it’s also about overfishing a species until there’s almost nothing left in the ocean, which makes the illegal poaching by this pirate ship so much more significant.  Ultimately, they catch the pirate ship, put them on trial, but in the end, it doesn’t turn out.  The pirates spend some time on the hook, but eventually thrown back to the sea.  And that’s where my reading about fishing came to a halt.

This spring, though, I plan to fish some more, get out a little sooner on those trout waters.  Maybe go back to some of those places I used to fish so long ago, and I’m hoping to do a little better.  That’s the other thing about these stories, too, the irresistible pull of fishing. I just hope there continues to be something to catch, something to sustain in the growing threat to our natural resources.

A Deeper Look at Jason Isbell’s “Speed Trap Town”

In December, I had the opportunity to see Jason Isbell play an acoustic show at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have been huge fans since discovering him in the summer of 2015, and for the past five years, we’ve been obsessed. It was on the heels of his album Something More Than Free that we first started listening, and I remember watching a performance of Isbell (pronounced IsBULL, by those in the know) with his band recorded at KEXP radio station in Seattle, Washington. My wife and I were hooked, and just as our interest with another favorite of ours, Ryan Adams, had started to wan, Jason Isbell’s music permeated the empty space with something new and interesting.

Since that summer, we’ve seen him over ten times. We’ve traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to see him play in his home state. We stumbled upon his grandfather in Green Hill, talking for over an hour with him, and in that same incredible day, met both Jason and his wife, Amanda Shires. At this point, we’ve met everyone in the band, too. I’ve shared elevator rides with Sadler and Jimbo Hart, his bass player. We even bought Chad Gamble, the drummer, a drink after a show in New York City. Stella Artois! And in an amazing stretch, we saw Jason and the 400 Unit play four concerts within a week. It’s safe to say we’ve been obsessed.

Why? The simple answer is the music. But there’s more to it—he’s an artist with a compelling story. I couldn’t possibly do any justice within my time constraints, but here’s my quick take. He’s such a talented guitarist and songwriter, who like many people, has conquered some personal demons. On top of that, he seems down to earth and authentic. To me, he breathes this life into his songs.

For me and my wife, though, it’s also about place. We traveled to Jason’s home state of Alabama, in part, because we wanted to become acquainted with the places mentioned in his songs. We wanted to travel along those same roads, see those same stretches of land. Many of you who read my blog regularly know that I often write about issues of place in literature, and many of my favorite books deal directly with place like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s that sense of place in Isbell’s songwriting that takes precedence, and even though he’s living and working in Nashville, Tennessee, he’s not writing kitschy songs about trucks, beers, and girls. That’s not his style, and if it were, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be spending my evening writing about him.

Instead, I’ve noticed the way many of his songs weave together place with change. Just thinking through some of his songs, especially on Something More Than Free, I’m reminded immediately of “Children of Children” and “The Life You Chose.” From Southeastern, his songs such as “Different Days” and “Cover Me Up” easily hit that mark. Without dwelling on the details, I think there’s something about growing up in these songs, about coming into your own as a person, that speaks to me. It’s songs like these that address the topic of change, which we all inevitably do as we age, but Isbell brings this theme to such poignant culminations of self-understanding and identity.

In December, I was fortunate to hear “Speed Trap Town” played by Jason and Sadler. It’s one of my favorite songs from Something More Than Free, and one of the few songs by Isbell that I feel comfortable singing and playing on the guitar. There are a few songs I’m always waiting to hear when I see Jason play, and this evening, he held this one back until the encore. Indeed, it’s that kind of song. Jason plays some simple, delicate chords, and Sadler lends some nice lead flourishes, but everything’s rather reserved, which allows the lyrics to take precedence in the song. What’s left is a powerful story, maybe even tragic, about leaving the past behind.

Coincidentally, last summer, I started searching for some blog posts about his music and came across a little piece by Andrew Ferguson, who lives in Scotland. In his post, he writes about the story-telling quality of “Speed Trap Town,” recognizing many of the same details I love about this song. His writing inspired me to reach out to him, and I’ve been reading his blog regularly, which often deals with music among other things. Like me, he’s a writer and guitarist, and maybe that helps us appreciate Jason Isbell just a little more, too.

Without giving the whole song verbatim, I’d argue that this song is a masterpiece about place and change. And like most songs of this caliber, there is an element to the lyrics that remain sufficiently complex and even ambiguous. The song deserves more thought and interpretation than one might normally expect. The gist of the story is that the narrator’s father is dying a long slow death, one that keeps him in the hospital wasting away, and that secondly, the narrator is grappling with the fact that his dad wasn’t ideal, having been a cheating husband and an absent father, in a small town where everyone knows his history.

Eventually the narrator recognizes his need to escape, to not get stuck here in this so called speed trap town. In the second stanza, he really hammers that theme. He writes, “Well, it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name / These 5A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” It’s such a clever metaphor here to use football to emphasize the story of changing identity. The fact that the narrator wants to forget himself in alcohol, to slip perhaps into some kind of anonymity where he forgets who he is. And although “shallow cross” refers to a football play, the diction makes one think of losing their faith, which gets even more emphasized when he refers to a “boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” Yes, he’s talking about football, but I can’t help thinking that this also relates to his father. Children often idealize their parents, putting all their faith in them. As we mature and age, however, we begin to see their flaws, and our false impressions—our dreams of them—begin to crumble. It’s deep stuff.

Later in the song, more issues of faithlessness come to the surface as we learn that a decade earlier there was a “girl that wasn’t mama [who] caused his heart attack.” We know, therefore, that the narrator has been grappling with the flaws of his father, who was also a “tough state trooper” for a long time. Police officers are other figures we often tend to idealize as honorable and trustworthy people, but the narrator’s father doesn’t seem to represent that fidelity, because he’s “just pulling women over in a speed trap town.” At this point in the song, the narrator doesn’t seem to have any illusions about his father, but there seems to be a question of his own loyalty to his father, because he’s questioning his decision to stay in this small town.

And he doesn’t stick around. Instead, he decides to “sign my name and say my last goodbye,” which implies, at least to me, that he’s taking his father off life support. Concluding the verse, he then sings, “There’s nothing here that can’t be left behind.” This could be tragic, but in the last verse of the song, we find the narrator “a thousand miles away from that speed trap town.” And there’s something about his decision to leave his father that has cleared his conscience in a sense, for the imagery in that last verse of the song seems positive. He writes that the “sun came up” and he was able to sleep a “couple hours” and he’s drinking a “cup of coffee by an Indian mound.” Those last few lines are so cathartic, and they seem to betray a rebirth, a new start perhaps, where the past has been put to rest. I think of that especially with the “Indian mound,” because that imagery seems to suggest a buried past or a grave. The narrator has found some kind of peace with his past. He’s leaving the speed trap town behind after making a hard realization. He’s headed into something new, miles away from his old life.

It’s natural to wonder about the title, too. What is a speed trap town? To me, it’s a tiny town along the highway with a reduced speed limit—maybe going from 55 down to 25—for only a short distance. It’s easy then, when driving along through these towns, to just speed through them. They’re perfect places for speed traps. Of course, the larger metaphor is the idea of getting stuck in the same little place for a long time. Maybe even being held back, too, by those around us from moving on to something better. That might even be the very heart of this song, that simple realization that we can change our situation. He even says, “But it never did occur to me to leave ‘til tonight / When I realized he’ll never be all right.” To me, that suggests that the narrator had been holding on to the past, holding on to some illusory dreams, and that he’s finally made the decision to walk away from those things holding him “trapped” in this place. That’s scary for many people, because we often fear change. It’s much easier to continue on in difficult situations rather than forge new directions. We make excuses for ourselves. It’s our thinking, therefore, that often traps us, but recognizing these thoughts is a mark of maturity.

As for that show in December, I wasn’t disappointed. It felt like coming full circle, in a sense, because many of those first performances I watched several years ago included only Jason and Sadler playing acoustic. I’m always awed by their talent, always envious, wishing I could write or play guitar like them. And listening to “Speed Trap Town” that night only made me yearn for more. In the coming months, he’ll be releasing his latest album, Reunions. I can’t wait to see where he takes us this time around.