#452: John Prine, "John Prine" (1971)

           2. May, 2011 / Missoula, MT

We all eventually become whatever we pretend to hate.

—Chuck Klosterman


There is much more preparing to be done than you once would have expected. Here is what you once expected: to move delicately and with nothing but triumph into graduate school straight from your small southern undergraduate haven. To get into a top-tier writing school. To, you know, have it made the way you wanted it made.

But there is much more preparing to be done, now that the last rejection letter has arrived. I.e.: plan B. I.e.: who knows what now. You start at the basics: you’ve lived in the spectacular, confused Commonwealth of Virginia your entire life up to this point, so maybe it’s the right time to split. To get some perspective. You apply to occupations in all the places that seem the most opposite while remaining U.S.-bound (for family, significant other, fear of the foreign, name it): Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana. Phone calls, applications. Two months later, you’re landing in Missoula, starting work next week.

You don’t know a soul; your roommates come care of Craigslist, the kind you might speak to on the phone just once before agreeing to the lease. Which you know a little about, because that’s what you’ve done. The airport taxi driver’s kindhe reminds you that this city’s the eleventh most difficult in which to find a job right now. But, he saysbut!when you visit, you might not leave. This man’s warped optimism is intriguing. You’re nervous for this new weird part of life, but still it feels right. Maybe necessary.

Missoula proves to be wide open and astounding, a city nestled on all sides by mountains that loom but welcome with gracious simultaneity, a college town that somehow avoids making year-rounders feel overrun. The strangest part is ironically the most familiar: a hungry, healthy music scene that’s all Appalachia, banjos and mandos and jaw harps. There’s an annual folk fest, local bars with house bands that don’t need amps. For you, right now, living this life, it’s everything you needed without ever imagining you might.

At this point, your own time in a band has come grinding to a halt. You had had differing ideas from your best friend and bandmate, and handled it poorly. He is still making music, album after album of smart, meaningful folk-rap recorded in analog and distributed hand-to-hand, but you don’t regret your absence. You can’t. You weren’t right for where it was headed; in the time since, you’ve taught yourself some hybrid of fingerpick ukulele-style guitar and you sing country songs sometimes on your porch like a stereotype and you’re content. Missoula, too, is perfect for this different kind of worthless noise, this sending soft acoustics into the big sky and thinking about a whole slew of nothing.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

It’s unexpected, the way this becomes the perfect place to discover all the songs you once believed you had no space to take in. That is to say, all your dad’s old music: John Prine, Marty Robbins, Jackson Browne. Tapes he’d burn through in the Saturn, which turned into discs he kept his fat leather CD wallet meticulously stocked with. You’d slip your Discman on as soon as you were able to, in those years, turn the punk rock up to drown out “Sam Stone.” Why, then, is the song so wrenching to you now? Why, now, does your father’s life’s soundtrack come drifting to you? Who have you become?

For one, you catch on quick to John Prine being punk rock in ways people never admit but everyone who takes the time to pay attention understands. That is to say, in the same ways Dorothy Parker and Randy Newman and Stephen Colbert are punk rock: sneering, sarcastic, deceptively formulaic, still somehow thoroughly appealing. Prine’s first album seems like a bunch of country-folk Gram Parsons stuff, and from the outside, that’s precisely what it is. The thing’s predominantly acoustic; there’s pretty much no drums. Dude’s in all denim, sitting on a haystack on the album cover. For years, it pretty much screamed DAD. But listen closer, and the songs are rotten from the inside out, all wasted promises and heroin addiction and old folks left to die alone. The record’s biggest love song is mostly about masturbation. It doesn’t take long to get it: this guy’s pissed off, desolate, and holy shit is he a damn fine songwriter.

Your dad’s a good man. Chatty, easygoing, and above all else, more and more supportive as the years go on. You don’t really need Prine in the way some sons or bitter writers might need a connector to get closer to their fathers; as your Virginia-bred father’s father might put it, y’all solid. But all the same, you’ve come to the music when it seemed to suit you best. It feels like home, like memory embodied in a single nasally voice, like all the time you spent blocking things out you only wasted. When you’re home from Montana for Christmas, you tell your dad you’ve burned some of his CDs and can’t stop listening. Oh yeah? he says. I love that stuff. Simple as that.

Late spring in Montana is early summer elsewhere. The snow’s mostly melted by Memorial Day, and though the nights still bluster, it’s a far more familiar flannel-and-jacket kind of chill, warm enough at least to have a beer on the back deck and pick at your guitar. Which you know a little bit about, because it’s exactly what you do. Your roommates, four women, current or ex-trail maintainers for the state’s Conservation Corps, very funny, very badass, want you to play something they can sing. No, not just something: John Prine’s “Paradise,” a sort of “Big Yellow Taxi” for the far more jaded. Someone brings out her laptop to get the chords and lyrics just right, another her mandolin to play along. You don’t like to sing, hardly play music for anyone in any form much anymore. But this is a good song and these are good people. The backyard chickens peck at the ground, the housecat stalking them with questionable intentions. By August you’ll be gone, back in Virginia at summer’s end, and yes, it’s true: grad school bound. But wouldn’t it be nice to stay like this forever? Sitting here, ensconced by mountains, stumbling through folk songs and turning slowly, happily into your father? Wouldn’t it feel right to keep growing old forever?

—Brad Efford