Remembering the great John Prine

We lost John Prine this week. Paradise, the hometown of his family in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, was wiped off the map by Peabody Coal Company and the toxins into the Green River.
John Prine in his prime.

I photographed and interviewed Prine in July of 1980 when he appeared at The Mississippi River Festival at Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville while reporting for The Telegraph in Alton.

The concert was classic Prine with songs like Paradise, Sam Stone, Hello in There, Dear Abby and much, much more.

Backstage after the show, interviewing and photographing him provided a fascinating look at a great storyteller who examined America and expressed his thoughts in well-crafted words.

In Paradise, he sang:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

Paradise — John Prine

Prine opened his concert that night with Saigon, included “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” a song he co-wrote with Steve Goodman, the Chicago folk singer who also wrote “City of New Orleans.” Prine contributed the final verse of “by my name” that was covered by David Allen Coe.

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got run over by a damned old train

And I’ll hang around as long as you will let me
And I never minded standing’ in the rain, no
But you don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’
You never even called me
Well, I wonder why you don’t call me
Why don’t you ever call me by my name

You Never Even Called Me By My Name – Steve Goodman and John Prine

But Paradise brought the largest audience response.

Backstage, I told him I had spent my high school years in Southwestern Virginia and knew about what Peabody had done to Kentucky with strip mining and that had visited what was left of Paradise during the 1960s as a reporter for The Roanoke Times and wrote about it, he smiled and said: “Then you understand.”

Here’s one good video of Prine and John Burns doing Paradise:

The festival was coming to an end after 10 years of bringing the best of music to the area just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Prine’s concert turned out to be the last one I covered for the paper.

The SIUE board of directors pulled the plug on the festival in 1981. It was also the year Amy and I left the paper in Alton and moved to Washington, DC.

After 23 years in Washington, we moved to Floyd County. At the Oak Grove Pavilion behind Zion Lutheran Church, I had a chance to film Mike Mitchell, Bernie Coveney, Abe Goorskey and Chris Luster in an excellent performance of Paradise and include photos of that area in the production. It is one of my favorite pieces shot in this area.

My thanks to Mike, Bernie, Abe, and Chris for putting their talents to work on a classic number from Prine. Their efforts (at the top of this article) shows the unique musical culture of Floyd County and Southwestern Virginia.

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