Lately being our most responsible, my wife and I have been hunting for the communion of common sense and creativity in hopes of discovering small practices to nurture our sanity. We imposed quarantine upon ourselves approximately three weeks ago making the decision to suspend progress on our semi-renovated apartment and hunker down amidst the chaos for safety’s sake. We attempted walks around our neighbourhood only to end with the added anxieties and judgement towards others’ lack of distancing or unhygienic actions. These frustrations lead to a confused hyperawareness when having to leave the house for any reason, each of us quick to recognize that if we didn’t counter this headspace we would be wading in dangerous waters.
So, we changed the scenery and drove south of the city until getting far enough away to turn down a grid and park her car on a roadside approach. The routine has stuck, some evenings are filled with discussion, others are silent, always staring off and reflecting on the sky – Wednesday night, last week was no different. With our return trek to the vehicle, as anticipated, a massive prairie supermoon contorted through the horizon. We stood under its spell and for the first time in weeks felt a profound sense of calmness.
My thirties have granted me a more philosophical existence and upon Melanie putting the vehicle into drive and pulling onto the grid, I made a comment on the obvious absurdity of the times; “I’ve experienced so many different realities in my 36 years,” I said to her, “and something else is going to happen that drastically changes this one.”
She requested a song – “Supermoon” by Case Lang Veirs – I opened up my phone.
The new reality of a world without John Prine robbed me of my breath. I raced to anger, as I’ve been unable to understand some of the actions of our leaders in the face of this pandemic. I sank quickly into sympathy, and soon to empathy for the ones he loved. In the most beautiful of clichéd moments, we pulled back onto the grid, parked the car, listened to his music and watched the full moon continue to crawl.
Melanie and I have existed a degree away from John and through some of our closest friends, always had a distant hope of developing our own relationship with a person that has had such a profound impact on our art and how we attempt to carry ourselves in the world. I’ll admit the selfishness in that wish, so even if I could have been granted the quickest of conversations, I knew exactly the story I would tell him. Whether it’s a God or a perfect order, it worked directly through John Prine to reveal itself in the fall of 2016 – I was convinced of mystery and a divine architecture.
Years prior, I’d developed a deep admiration of John Prine, via Kris Kristofferson’s Jesus Was A Capricorn. It introduced a specific styling, an influence I was unable to shake. I would pay it homage in my writing by hiding easter eggs throughout the content until its full display was presented as an ode when co-writing “Crooked Old Earth” with my wife, Melanie (Belle Plaine)–the title taken from Rodney Crowell’s Chinaberry Sidewalks and the lyrical feel, a direct tribute to our songwriting hero.
It appeared on Realms and following the recording of the record, I followed the Muse to Nashville.
At the time, Colter Wall had relocated from the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, to Bowling Green, Kentucky. The 65-mile drive between the two cities now had us in closer proximity than we’d had back in Saskatchewan, and Colter invited me into his own newfound community. As inclusive as anybody, his friend and manager, Mary Sparr.
The expenses of bunking up in Music City quickly ate up my budget, so upon finding out John Prine was scheduled to play The Ryman Auditorium on September 30, 2016, it was easier for me to accept that it wouldn’t be my lack of funds keeping me from attending, but that the show had already been sold out. The existential cruelty had a weight to it, and a near depression set in as the date of the show arrived. That afternoon, knowing I was to miss out, I laid on my air-mattress in an empty room and accepted my misfortune.
Having only met Mary once in passing, it was surprised by her call – and then shocking as to why. She asked if I was a fan of Prine, and told me she might have an extra ticket to that night’s show. I’m sure I responded with silence – dumbfounded with the coincidence. She followed up with the warning to not get my hopes up, but that she was looking into the possibility. I wasted an hour pacing as I anticipated the return call, hesitant to text. Regardless, I cleaned myself up and hailed a cab.
Reminding myself that Mary had always been open about the evening’s uncertainty, I kept myself from seeing the situation as a strange prank. The outside crowd was thinning, in moments a hero would take the stage, and I remained on the front steps of the venue.
I could see in my periphery that I was being singled out.
“Excuse me, sir – are you making your way in?” A middle-aged man asked. He was well-kept with short white hair, handsome features and easy voice.
“Waiting on a friend,” I replied.
He clarified. “Do you have a ticket to tonight’s show?”
I continued to give Mary the benefit of the doubt. “I’m sure I do,” I said.
“You lack confidence,” he said, sage-like, “I can’t cover your friend but here you go,” extending to me a folded piece of paper.
A sense of guilt struck as he held it out. I denied the gift and responded once again, “She should be showing up any minute.”
I couldn’t believe I’d just turned down what I’m assuming was a free ticket inside.
The gentleman stood there smiling. “You don’t understand. This is for you.”
Placing the folded piece of paper in my sportcoat, nodding his head and walking away.
Like clockwork, Mary appeared around the corner, apologetic for her delay. I was still rather stunned to the previous moment, relaying the experience to her as we walked in together and made our way to the front of the upper balcony.
No energy compares to that of the Ryman Auditorium and amidst its hum an eager crowd sat, excited. Every pew, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in its semi-circle layout with a handful of folding chairs occupying the open space immediately front and center. As the lights dimmed and the band walked onto the stage, one remaining folding chair, just a few feet from the stage, sat empty.
We erupted into applause, John smiled from behind the microphone and opened with “Love, Love, Love”. A wave came over me, reaching to my inside pocket and pulling out the folded piece of paper. Row BB. My initials. That lone empty folding chair.
“You don’t understand, this is for you” – and then he just walked away.
The synchronicity needed sharing. I nudged Mary and passed her the piece of paper. Her reaction was as expected, urging me to accept my upgrade. As John finished “Glory of True Love”, I quickly exited the balcony and found my way walking towards the stage as if I were about to hop on it myself.
I felt every chord change, vocal inflection, and facial movement that night. From prolonged eye contact to his signature nod, I took in John Prine’s energy as both an eager student and an enchanted churchgoer. He was profoundly gracious in the moment and indebted to his listeners, sharing anecdotes and one-liners all strengthened by timing. He unveiled his legacy and unified the works with wry humour. Lyrics transformed from silly to poignant. Whenever my attention wandered, it was to the thought of the gentleman who handed me my ticket. I returned to my temporary home overwhelmed, needing no further proof that a greater intelligence was at play; every moment contributing to deeper understanding.
We’ll all be used and rewarded to whatever extent is required for a lesson. If it weren’t for Mary, I wouldn’t have left the house that night – she was the catalyst. However, that evening at The Ryman was proof that maybe if we just show up, innocent and curious, we’ll somehow be met with magic.
It’s a big ol’ goofy world.
Rest easy, John, and thank you.