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John Prine's Delightful Debut Has Been a Wistful Ride For Fifty Years

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We Lost Him Last Year But His Debut Lives On After Fifty Years


Kings Island amusement park is already planning for its fiftieth anniversary, even though that occasion is yet a year away. The place has been offering fun rides to kids and adults in Cincinnati for the last 49 summers, but an even more enjoyable roller coaster debuted the year before.

That ride came from the debut album of a singer-songwriter, whose themes continue to take listeners on a roller coaster of emotions. He made no discernible dent in the charts in 1971, but John Prine would spend the next forty nine years of his life making his fans laugh, cry, seethe, or quietly ruminate.

His self-titled first record starts us off with a feeling of relaxation, as Prine sings of forgetting one's troubles through an “Illegal Smile.” It is a relatively inexpensive means of attaining inner peace, and it does no harm to anyone else.

We proceed from a relaxed state to one of comic relief, the feeling elicited from “Spanish Pipedream.” Better known as “Blow up your TV” because of its chorus, the track amusingly tells of a Montreal-bound soldier who falls for an alchol-bound barroom dancer.

“I sat down at the table and I acted really naive, for I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve,” Prine quips in the second verse.

The lyrical roller coaster, having already looped from relaxation to humor, next takes us down to the somber idea of aging. “Hello in There” is Prine's heart-wrenching depiction of Loretta and her husband, senior citizens whose children have died or scattered and who feel ignored by the rest of society.

“Sam Stone”, a portrait of an ex-GI who returns home with a drug addiction, renders us with feelings of helplessness. Prine leaves us with the stark scene of the war hero's suicide: “Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon, climbing walls while sitting in a chair, an overdose hovering in the air.”

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The album's most well-known song comes next, and it evokes strong nostalgia for childhood. “Paradise” captures a boy growing up in Kentucky's Muhlenburg County, where he fondly recalls shooting pop bottles and fishing in Green River before the coal companies destroyed the natural beauty of the mountains.

Next on the amusement park ride that is John Prine, listeners are sent up to a height of political satire. “Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore” humorously exposes the hypocrisy of those who claim to live by Jesus yet at the same time support war, ending with St. Peter refusing to allow such shameless folks to enter the Gate.

In true roller coaster style, Prine's ride then takes you down on the track “Far From Me.” It is no doubt the most personal song of the baker's dozen, as Kathy the waitress delays her inevitable intention of breaking things off with the narrator.

“She asked me to change the station, said that song just drove her insane,” Prine laments. “But it wasn't the music playing, it was me she was trying to blame.”

Relationships, or lack thereof, are also the topic on the next song. In “Donald and Lydia” Prine paints portraits of two lonely individuals, one a cashier at an arcade and the other a soldier.

They make love in the mountains, in the streams, and in the valleys, according to the last verse: “But when they were finished there was nothing to say, because mostly they made love from ten miles away.”

As soon as we exhale a chuckle at the idea of the lonely couple's self-pleasuring, Prine decides to carry once again a down loop. James Louis, the fatherless kid with two first names, comes to a tragic end in “Six o' Clock News.

“The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o'clock news,” Prine explains. “His brains were on the sidewalk, blood was on his shoes.”

At last we must disembark from the roller coaster, feeling exhilaration and melancholy and nostalgia all at the same time. But like most kids at an amusement park who cannot wait to experience the ride again, Prine fans have been delightfully climbing back on the emotional musical roller coaster for the last half century.

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