I was 18, angry and a bit unhinged when I discovered John Prine.
After a decade spent dreaming of the world beyond the cornfield outside my bedroom window, I felt unmoored at the small liberal arts college where I had landed. I was academically behind my peers, many of whom had attended prestigious charter schools or elite private academies. I considered my rural upbringing a source of shame and I used a performative mockery of life in Ohio as a shield. Maybe I grew up among a bunch of Friday night football fanatics and wayward heshers who drove two towns over to cruise the streets of the slightly bigger rural community on Saturday nights, but I certainly wasn't one of them.
It was the early ’90s and the soundtrack to collegiate life in America was grunge. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden — these bands were all the rage. But the anguished howls of young white men using heroin to dull their pain meant nothing to me.
I had a pretty crappy sort of boyfriend who was into folk music. Through him, I discovered John Prine (and Nanci Griffith, whose beautiful tales of life in Texas eventually led me to Austin, but that's a story for another day). I was entranced by Prine's ability to turn simple stories about life in America into poetic masterpieces.
John Prine didn't share my rural upbringing, but the profound portraits he painted of ordinary people muddling through felt like the opposite of the city slicker cool I was trying to achieve. He was the spokesman for the forgotten corners of America. It made me feel seen. Understood.
And through his work, I began to appreciate the value of a life under uncluttered skies.
"Angel From Montgomery" was on every mixtape I made from 1992 to 1996. The night Prine died, I played it and cried. It's the tragically perfect soundtrack to this saddest of springs.