On the surface, the boys and I had been waiting for the John Prine concert for a couple of months. But in a deeper way, we’d been waiting for thirty years.
My kids grew up hearing his songs—on the tape player during road trips in our old Ford van and in person with me playing the guitar. Sometimes we’d sing “Please Don’t Bury Me” or “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” in the living room and sometimes in their bedroom right before they went to sleep. On our trips back from Columbus, Ohio, we’d drive across the Green River into Muhlenberg County and I’d show them the world’s largest shovel and the Paradise steam plant with its nuclear-like cooling towers. Sometimes I’d cue up John Prine’s strip mining protest song that had made all that somewhat famous for a while back in the early Seventies.
Eventually, my sons would play guitar and sing those songs to their own kids. So when we made our way over to Kansas City just over a week ago, it felt more like we’d been waiting all our lives to go to a John Prine concert.
We found our seats in the luxuriously ornate Midland Theatre in Kansas City, then gawked a bit longer at the architecture and furnishings. After a forty-five minute stint from the warm-up duo, John and his band came out to an enthusiastic welcome.
About an hour into the show, he sang “Souvenirs,” a haunting song about loss. The crowd quietened quickly. Jeremiah reached his arm around my shoulders and gave me a one-armed hug. As I reached over and patted Jeremiah’s thigh, Daniel gave my knee a squeeze. I hugged Dan with my right arm and then stretched a bit and squeezed Sam’s shoulder. A little later, as John played the tender and sensitive guitar prelude to “Hello in There,” a powerfully poignant song about aging parents, loss and loneliness, Jeremiah again initiated that same sequence. That theatre full of strangers seemed more like a cathedral. A sense of respect and appreciation not entirely unlike reverence spread out from the soothing familiarity of old lyrics freshly breathed into new life.
I drew in a deep breath, welcomed the warm rising in my throat that seemed to fill my chest and my mind. “You know that old trees grow stronger/and old rivers grow wilder every day.” I squeezed Jeremiah’s knee, hugged Dan’s shoulders and then rubbed Sam’s back gently but firmly.
In my heart, I gave thanks for all the lessons, all the years and for this incredible night and for all the healing and forgiving that made it possible. For this grace, for this glorious place, for all the sharings that transcend years and wounds, and draw us together. For the values that may sometimes seem blurred but in the end shine even brighter in each life to which they are passed. I gave thanks for this wonderful weekend and for the years of memories that we will carry, both from our own singing and this new expression of listening to John Prine together.
I felt like we’d rounded a big curve on that old West Kentucky Parkway and were rolling right across the Green River. I was pretty sure we’d found our way back to Paradise.