In 2017, the Eaux Claires festival in Eau Claire, Wis. hosted the late songwriter John Prine. He was backed by a lot of young, great musicians, including members of Bon Iver, The National — a real who’s who of modern songcraft. We were lucky enough to be out front and watching. It rained the whole time. It was perfect. Best rain you ever felt. John was beaming. Before John Prine and Friends hit the stage, writer Michael Perry read a little introduction, constructed as a letter to Justin Vernon. Some of the things Michael said stuck in our brains. He put the poetry of John Prine’s music just about as well as anybody’s going to put it. We wrote Michael in the wake of John’s passing and asked if he would mind letting us read his introduction from way back in 2017. He was kind enough to share it with us and doubly kind enough to let us share it with you. You’ll see what we mean.
Dear Justin Vernon:
I got a fifteen-year-old van with four wheels and three hubcaps and the other day I was driving it five hours down into southeastern Wisconsin, down there dangerously close to Iowa, when I received a satellite transmission from outer space via my telephone, and contained in this transmission was a musical composition by John Prine, which, as it redistributed itself through a Bluetooth speaker the size of a pack of American Spirits reminded me that the first time you ever heard John Prine you were in a minivan.
You had a little Discman, and you were holding it out before you so it would not skip when your daddy hit a bump, and you didn’t know much about the man on the CD, but you remember being deep in your tiny foam headphones and him sing-saying, Hello in there…hello.”
For me it was a basement not two miles from this stage. I was shooting darts with a physical therapist so tall he had to duck a little so as not to head-butt the joists, and he had this beat up boombox hanging from a nail and he paused in the darting to produce a well-worn cassette tape, which he held up as if it was the Ace of Hearts, and he said, “Have you ever heard of John Prine?” And then he clickety-clacked it into the receiver, pushed play, and then I had heard John Prine and boy that put me off on a tangent.
We’ve talked about this, you and me. How we like heroes who run close to the ground. Who can make words dance but also know what it is to lug’em around stuffed in envelopes stuffed in a shoulder bag stuffed with the U.S. Mail. Give me a storyteller whose fibs are fun, who may now and then lie to you but always with a twinkle in his eye. I like songs written in the key of empathy. I like songs that don’t sound silly if you sing’em when yer 80, and all your hair fell out, and you can’t find your glasses.
I like art hung on three chords, I like a verse like a warning sign: How the hell can a person go to work in the mornin’ come home in the evenin’ and have nothin’ to say…you write a line like that you have done the world a service and are free to ride off into the sunset, the original Orange Crush.
That ol’ van of mine looks like a million other minivans and is therefore tough to locate in the Walmart parkin’ lot, but last year the door handle broke and the junk man did not have the proper color on hand and he said do you mind if it doesn’t match, and I said nope because now I can walk right past all them other minivans and straight to it, just one more validation of what John Prine has always said: it’s a big old goofy world.