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Elvis Costello Writes Heartfelt Tribute To John Prine

“A world with John Prine in it has been much better than the poorer one in which we now dwell”.

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Photo: Ray Di Pietro, courtesy of the artist

Elvis Costello has offered a poignant tribute to the late John Prine. In a lengthy essay, published on his website, Costello shared personal memories about the music legend and discussed the massive impact that the singer-songwriter’s work had on him. Prine, 73, passed away last week, following complications from COVID-19.

“I was speaking today to my pal and Best Man, the playwright Alan Bleasdale about the sad passing of John Prine”, began Costello. “We recalled that forty years ago, when we were first introduced, the condition of us becoming friends was that the other also loved John Prine”.

He went on to share that, “This was non-negotiable, although neither of us needed to negotiate about it. Alan told me that if he had been a songwriter instead of a playwright, he would have wanted to be John Prine. I told Alan that when I was nineteen and only pretending to be a songwriter, I too wanted to be John Prine.”

An integral part of American roots music history, Prine released over 24 studio and live albums over the course of his 50-year career. His songwriting offered deftly-painted portraits of daily life and the country’s working-class people – an ability which Costello greatly admired – and discovered – when he got his first taste of the artist on a ‘Sam Stone’/‘Illegal Smile’ 45.

The two songs, off Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut, “Showed me everything that I would come to appreciate in John’s writing”, recalled Costello. “On the A-side, a song of incredible empathy, an unflinching account of an addicted veteran and the impact of his torment on his family, all written with the authority of a man who had served in the army, while the b-side, was a good-humoured celebration of forbidden pleasures”.

The artist went on to detail Prine’s “Unique portraits of awkward lovers, shut-ins, older people or those crushed by the wheel of industry. These were songs that no one else was writing, filled with details that only Prine’s eye or ear caught; the arcane radio, the damaged and the destitute. The songs were filled with what sounded like sound advice from a friend in a crowded bar or a voice in the margins, but never one that was self-pitying or self-regarding.”

Costello – who shared the stage with Prine during the 2002 Concert for a Landmine Free World charity tour – also wrote about the artist’s 2009 appearance on his interview show, Spectacle. He recalled that, “I opened that taping with ‘Poison Moon’ and ‘Wave A White Flag’, two of the songs that I told the audience were written when the height of my ambition was to be able to write with the economy and unusual subject matter of a John Prine song”.

The artist also pondered what Prine might write about the hard-working nurses, grocery workers and delivery drivers, who are working tirelessly amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Perhaps it was his resilience that makes accepting John’s passing more difficult”, mourned Costello. “They tell us that a world with John Prine in it has been much better than the poorer one in which we now dwell”.

Listen to the best of Elvis Costello on Apple Music and Spotify.

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