John Prine, with the help of Shovels & Rope, delivered good news to the 2,700 people seated beneath the Saenger’s star-speckled ceiling on Friday night. Witnesses to the musical blessing left awoken to what we once knew—and may have forgotten in recent news—that life is great so long as we remember to love and laugh with one another.
At 70-years-old, the masterful singer-songwriter is renowned for conversational storytelling and songs with unassuming lyrics. Prine’s guitar-picking ditties, stories of lost soldiers and Andy Griffith-inspired fishing and whistling, seem written for families around a campfire listening.
But the renovated Saenger Theatre enhances the songs’ universal message. Its kind notes resounded through the grand atmosphere of painted sculptures and crystalline chandeliers. Everyone there, ushers and longtime fans alike, felt Prine’s power flow in the ears down to the body’s core.
One man in the crowd cupped his hands and hollered, “Thank God for John Prine!”
Ever humble, the two-time Grammy winner strummed a “C” chord and said, laughing at himself, “I don’t know if I’d blame it on Him or not.”
Novelist and Grammy-winning music writer, Tom Piazza, told me he “loved every single note.” The principal writer of HBO’s TREME referenced Prine’s cancer battles, shook his head, and said: “But there he is, standing up there and delivering beauty and soul. It’s inspiring to see these people who endure through the years, and who don’t back up an inch. The older I get the more inspiring it gets. It gives hope and spirit, you know?”
This hope and spirit combination is art’s effect on a person, on our community. Dynamic husband and wife duo, Shovels & Rope, share it in their new record, Little Seeds. For example, the audience sang along to “Saint Anne’s Parade,” their ode to the New Orleans’ spirit, celebrating the connection of love and grief:
“We were dressed to celebrate your wedding day
We marched along with the Saint Anne’s parade
Sang out our hearts while they sent away their dead
The sun shone on the river, we begin our lives instead.”
During intermission, an usher commented on the “very polite crowd.” “Look, they’re bringing up their trash to throw away.” I stood with him a moment as the audience poured into the hall, including Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, a strong woman and member of Prine’s bardic folk tradition.
Denim and leather boots, cashmere scarves and tattered tees. A few wore Krewe frames in their hair. Special occasions at the Saenger are a dressed-up affair. Among the first Baby Boomers, Prine’s band wore buttoned-up suits and ties. It was like a Billy Reid runway show had boiled over, and they were spilling through the door. A long-bearded man with a faded Harley tattoo straightened a stack of an empty beer cups atop the waste bin. The usher gaped at me. “See what I mean?”
Members of the audience clapped between songs and the overeager called out specific requests. “I know them all,” Prine assured them. “But we got some more listening to do before I get to those.”
Prine played “Love, Love, Love,” a song about “all the things that go / between a woman and a man.” He dedicated “Souvenirs” to the late Guy Clark and sang us upright with “Lake Marie.” Strumming alone, he delivered a solo version of “Mexican Home.”
It was hard to find a soul in the audience not whispering as he sang, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” in thoughtful appreciation of the tragedy and sacrifice of Vietnam veteran, “Sam Stone.”
“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” is one Prine wrote during the Vietnam era, but, sadly, we need to keep hearing it and listening to learn its message:
“They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reasons for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore.”
The message of love, of course, includes laughter. Prine called Cary Ann Hurst of Shovels & Rope onstage for the famous duet, “In Spite of Ourselves,” sung before by Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris. Hurst blushed and laughed through her first rhyme—“He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays / I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies”—and smiled wide when Prine teased her with raised eyebrows singing his—”She thinks all my jokes are corny / Convict movies make her horny.”
When Prine left the stage the diverse audience celebrated with a standing ovation that lasted throughout “Paradise,” his classic ode to old Kentucky. Among those standing and singing the encore was a pregnant woman tapping her belly to the beat. Hope and spirit is multi-generational and cross-cultural. It lives in good art like these songs and also in each of us.
Thank you, John Prine, for having us listen to the reminder. We’ll share the message and remember to be kinder.
All photos by Marc Pagani.