On what now seems likely to be the last long trip we’ll be taking for a while, I took Randa over to Drakesboro, Kentucky back at the end of February of this year. I wanted to show her the first building where I’d ever preached for on a regular basis, a little white framed church house there in that small western Kentucky town.
Forty-five years brings some changes, even to a place like Drakesboro. It took me a few minutes to retrace the those long ago entrances, the end point of a hundred-mile drive that I’d made each Sunday for a couple of years while I was in college at Murray State University. After getting out to the edge of town, I turned around and headed back into town. On my second pass along the street, I looked off and saw a sign, “Drakesboro Church of Christ.”
There was no small white framed church house. Instead there was a small brick building with a small brick wing. Small as it was, the building seemed larger than the parking lot. Didn’t seem to be room for more than a dozen cars. Back in 1975, we’d usually have fifty folks there for church. Disappointed in the progress, I didn’t take any pictures; there wasn’t anything there that was what I remembered.
Which seemed a perfect prelude to our drive over to Paradise.
Paradise was another small western Kentucky town, made relatively famous by John Prine the same year I graduated from high school. It was a blend of nostalgia and social consciousness, a joining of childhood memories and environmental indignation. Unless you lived there or at least visited in that section of western Kentucky before the passage and enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, you can’t imagine how incredibly ugly the terrain was back then. Huge open pits, as well as hideous yellow and orange sludge pools pocked the countryside where ancient forests had been stripped away. Strip mining furnished cheap coal and transformed beauty into a disgusting memorial of cooperate indifference.
Although some of the local folks didn’t care for Prine’s song—their standard of living had been greatly elevated by employment in the coal mines—I loved the song and eventually became a stalwart fan of the man’s music.
So, on a chilly, drizzly, gray day in late February, Randa and I headed over to Paradise, less than ten miles away. Well, to what was left of it. The town had been closed down decades ago and eventually, all of the houses and businesses had been torn down. I was hoping there might be something left. There wasn’t.
A big power generating station had been built there by TVA, with big cooling towers like those made famous by the iconic images of Three Mile Island. Joining those and the high discharge towers from the coal-fired steam generating section was a long slanting coal chute. Instead of finding some tenuous testimony of what had been there long ago, we were welcomed by posted signs warning that vehicles proceeding any further—and the occupants—would be subject to search. In the history of coal in this country, there has never been any lack of assertion of power and authority on the owners’ part.
There was a bit of grim irony in learning that the Paradise power plant is no longer operating. I took a selfie in front of the big sign and took several pictures of an incredibly clear small pond hidden by some trees. That little pond and the new terrain of rounded mounds sodded with fescue or covered with pine trees is a testimony to the change brought about not by corporate concern or local activism but by federal legislation. I paused again a little later to take a few more pictures of the countryside and then we headed back over to the Western Kentucky Parkway.
Even though the results of our diversion were not what I’d hoped, it was still good to revisit the area and to rekindle memories of John Prine. To remember how a student in one of the classes I taught at Ohio State University in the middle Eighties actually converted me into a John Prine fan. “You’re from Kentucky and you don’t listen to John Prine?!” she’d exclaimed. Serena and her boyfriend promptly made me a bootleg cassette tape of a couple of his albums. I was hooked. And hooked my kids. Just about any time we were riding around in that 1977 Ford Econoline van, I’d have John Prine playing. Good memories.
One of the best ones, though, was of going to a concert of his in Kansas City with three of my sons.
Sam was living with us in northeastern Kansas at the time while he was on temporary assignment at Fort Leavenworth. It was his idea for as many of the other kids who could to join us for the concert in Kansas City. Dan and Jeremiah drove five hundred miles from west Kentucky. 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, to Murray, 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. My daughter, Susan, does the same thing with her kids now when they travel over from the Lexington area to Murray.
Eventually, my sons would play guitar and sing those songs to their own kids. The night before the concert, we invited my very dear friend Neil Clarkson to come over and join us for some warmup songs. We sat around the living room, playing guitars and singing John Prine, Guy Clark and a few others. Neil would later comment that he was “an honorary Arnett for an evening.” It was good to have my friend and my sons meet one another. It was especially fulfilling to have Neil and Sam become friends. That night turned out to be a great prelude to the concert.
So when we made our way over to Kansas City in March of 2017, 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, gawking 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. One of the greatest impressions I carried from that evening was the depth of gentleness and genuine love of humanity that seemed to emanate from John Prine.
Well, that was how that felt just three years ago. Less than two months ago, on that trip when we visited Paradise, Randa and I stopped off in Murray first and visited Jeremiah and his family. Jeremiah and I sang together a while in the basement. Did a John Prine song or two.
Later, in South Carolina with Sam and his family… Yep, some more John Prine. That was right at the onset of the pandemic, right before the deniers finally acknowledged this wasn’t just a bad cough or the flu. Finally admitted it might actually be a problem. A couple of weeks before John Prine ended up in the hospital. And died.
And so, perhaps you can imagine the sadness our family now shares to know that he has passed on, another of those whose lives have been cut short in this pandemic. I knew when I first heard the news that he’d been hospitalized that John Prine’s chances were not good. Throat cancer over twenty years ago, a lung removed later, him being over seventy years old. And so when my oldest son shared with all of us a post about his death, I wasn’t shocked, or even surprised, really. Just saddened.
His death yesterday made another cut, took away another person that many will long remember. More than most and certainly in a distinctive way, John Prine has left the legacy of a life spent searching for and sharing truth and beauty, and an irascible sense of humor. He often managed to do all three at the same time. Randa and my kids and I will honor that legacy; we’ll still sing those old songs and probably learn a few of his newer ones. Teach them to our grandkids. We’ll cherish the old memories and make some new ones.
Sooner or later we’ll all find ourselves rounding a big curve and rolling right across the Green River. This damnable disease is going to make that moment sooner for thousands of folks. By sharing compassion, showing consideration for others, and following sound medical advice, most of us will make it through. Either way, I’m hoping we’ll all find our way back to Paradise.