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Lilly Hiatt Remembers John Prine: ‘I Wouldn’t Be a Writer Without You’

Growing up in Nashville, the kid of a musician, you best believe John Prine was wafting through our household. (Currently playing his song “Everybody” to try to glean some magic). My mother loved him, my brother loved him, my sister, and my dad. We were Prine people. He sang things we understood.

As a weird kid, I found hope in his quirky takes. For much of my young life, we attended a Christmas party at our friend Sandy and Candy Bull’s house in Nashville. Yes, Sandy and Candy. Sandy was an amazing musician in his own right, and the gathering always included a far-out bunch. Matraca Berg, Jeff Hannah, Kevin Welch, my folks, John and Fiona Prine and everyone’s cool children (who grew up to be, and already were at the time, artists themselves). I loved this party. I was never sure how to be, as I usually am awkward in a group of people, but I loved watching everyone interact, the clothes they had on, the conversations that often revolved around music. As a teenager in this situation, when you see someone you are in awe of, you don’t know what to do.

I’ve never been the kind to march right up, but I would see John and Fiona enter the room. Fiona buzzing around with her warm smile, talking to everyone in sight and John staying cool and calm in a corner. I loved that about him. I would think “Holy SHIT that’s John Prine over there.” And then I’d think, “Wow his wife is so beautiful.” I was just over the moon for both of them and happy to be a wallflower in their presence. I just wanted to watch him. I wondered, “How does a man who knows so much about people and the world conduct himself at a holiday shindig?” Well, he was pretty chill. So, I started to figure, “Wow you can feel all that stuff and still carry on with a smile.” What a strength!

A few years down the line, I was deciding between whether to sing (Neil Young’s) “Rockin’ In The Free World” or (Prine’s) “Angel from Montgomery” at my high school talent show. It would be the first time I had ever played guitar and sang in front of an audience. I picked “Angel from Montgomery” as it contained words of encouragement that I felt embodied my ethos. (“Free World” did too, however, I wasn’t ready to sing the word “toilet paper” in front of my high school peers…funny the things that stress you out as a kid). I had never been an old woman or had me a cowboy (from “Angel From Montgomery”), but I knew just the feeling of it all. So did John. I sang the song and my parents came and cried. I believe my sister was there too. My brother in spirit, as he was probably the person that I stole the Prine CD from.

It felt like a victory. Like a claim of independence.

That’s what John Prine’s words mean to me.

I am pretty sure I made a few different demos on my little MP3 player and this song was included, and at some point, my parents passed it on to the Prines just as a show-and-tell – Hey my kid loves your music! Fiona, ever so gracious, said they loved it. I remember thinking, “Hmmm I don’t think I’m up to par yet” — but I appreciated the open arms.

I could write really a novel about John Prine’s music throughout my 20s, but I’ll just summarize. Just know, vodka, The Missing Years, cigarettes…those things got me through a lot of my young years. In college, my roommate Dave had a record player in the basement where we lived, and he had two chickens, Grendel and Thor. We would get blasted and listen to Prine and watch the chickens. Down the line, I had a boyfriend who was really into JP and gave me Diamonds in the Rough. I heard “Souvenirs” and began to write. I wanted to know how to do what he did.

I still don’t. Nobody does.

There is a John Prine album for everyone. Spiritualized sings in their song “Cop Shoot Cop” a line from “Sam Stone,” albeit a little tweaked. In their version: “There’s a hole in my arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.” In Prine’s version, it’s daddy. Either way, that’s a line that has stuck with me through a lifetime, and I have come to lean on it and ponder it endlessly. And that’s another thing. John’s lyrics are so straight forward, he just says it. He says it in a way that no one else says it, but yet the lines are ever-evolving in their wisdom. They grow with you.

To wrap this up, I will tell you this. A few years ago, I had the honor of opening a show for John. I get there, and he and Fiona are in the dressing room. They’re so kind to me and give me a poster. Fiona is always dazzling and again, John seems so relaxed. I am awestruck, yet again, even though I have known them both since I was a kid. I never know how to be around my idols.

Well, I remember that night, crystal clear for the most part. The show, the singing, I remembered that I sang “Unwed Fathers,” I remember chatting with Kenneth Blevins (both Prine and dad’s drummer) side stage, I remember Fiona looking so beautiful as we all sang “Paradise.” But I received a video yesterday of me singing “In Spite of Ourselves” with him and have no recollection whatsoever. It’s not cause I was messed up or anything (I don’t drink), I believe it was just such an overwhelmingly otherworldly experience for me that I left every memory of that right on stage.

I love you, John Prine. I wouldn’t be a writer without you. You will live forever through your words. I am thinking of your beautiful family right now. Thank you.