How John Prine’s Death Feels For a Modern-Day Folk Singer

This article was first published on Medium. Read the original version here.

I started calling myself a folk singer (more than a little gratuitously) when I was 13. I’d been playing my first regular gig as a local coffeehouse singer-songwriter for about six months, and for the first time in my life, I felt like my voice mattered in some small way. Despite my age and inexperience, people gave a damn when I opened my mouth. I was hooked.

I’d always known that music carried a certain weight in the world, a certain ability to influence and impact. I grew up in a musical family in rural southern West Virginia, where classic country and folk music were just as much a way of life as coal mining, digging ramps, and multi-generational poverty.

It wasn’t until I was a young teenager, though, that I stumbled onto John Prine. In particular, his song Paradise hit me like a “coal train.” As a daughter of a state that’s been raped and exploited by strip mining more than just about any other place, his melancholy ballad of Paradise, Kentucky’s downturn incited an almost-instant emotional attachment to every word he uttered. And while I was far too young to truly understand many of his most poignant songs, his lyrics still sliced me to my bones. I couldn’t get enough of his slice-of-life storytelling and intimate lyricism.

Flash forward another 13 years. Today, I’m a professional folk singer-songwriter. Since the days of first discovering the power of folk and the magic of Prine, I’ve memorized most of his catalog by heart, recorded a couple of my own albums, and relocated to Nashville, TN (in fact, I live just a few blocks away from the hospital where Prine took his last breath). And like most of the music community, I’m absolutely heartbroken by the loss of this honest, warm, legendary man.

He was in a league of his own, chronicling the human condition in a way that few of us could ever hope to.

It’s hard to say exactly why this particular loss is hitting so many of us so hard. The obvious reason is that John Prine was one of the greats. When we think of legendary songwriters — Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, to name just a few — these are people who themselves emulated and revered John Prine. He was in a league of his own, chronicling the human condition in a way that few of us could ever hope to.

From a more present-moment perspective though, I think Prine’s death is particularly painful because it feels like the list of artists (and humans) of his caliber is growing shorter and shorter. In grieving John Prine, we’re also grieving a loss of intense depth, empathy, compassion, and artistry that the world so desperately needs more of these days.

That’s not to say there aren’t incredible folk musicians out there today keeping his candle burning. He wasn’t the first great storyteller or social commentator, and he won’t be the last.

But for everyone who loved his music, there is now a distinctly John Prine shaped hole in the world…and there’s simply no way any other human will ever be able to fill it.

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