To John Prine, With Love From a Bartender

From a bartender’s perspective, you’ll never beat John Prine, and although I’m a songwriter, a singer and a storyteller as well, I think the shit-bar matriarch’s point of view is the one Mr. Prine might have enjoyed the most from me, had I ever had the fortune to meet him.

Trade secret: she who rules the jukebox controls the bar. You want your crowd to drink? Put on something upbeat. You want them to order shots? Play something sexy. You can turn the room up or down with the volume and the vibe, and I’ve done it more times than not on my shifts at the little bars I’ve worked and love on the Will-Cook County line south of Chicago. I once kept two buffoons from punching each other over a game of pool by playing B-52’s and Go-Go’s songs at them. I swear it.

John Prine’s working-man, Midwestern balladry—whether he sings it or someone else—stops fights, hushes braggards, and soothes sad spells. The intuitive progressions and lilting melodies that carry his wit and wisdom can quiet just about any troubled mind. He’s every barmaid’s and man’s co-conspirator in making a bunch of strangers feel like a family, and while we mourn the loss of his life and future music, the songs he wrote live on in every jukebox in every dive bar he might have visited and the ones we—the patrons and protectors of run-down watering holes everywhere—wish he could have known.

5 John Prine Songs Every Bartender Should Know When to Play

You Never Even Called Me By My Name

John co-wrote this song with Steve Goodman in 1971 and didn’t want the credit on it because he saw it as a novelty and nothing more. In the barkeep’s arsenal, though, it’s a big gun. Are your patrons putting on a drunken shit-show of emotions and beer/whiskey muscles so strong that there’s a fight, an affair, and a split on an eight-ball of cocaine brewing? It’s time for a singalong. Throw this on. Immediately. They’ll be swaying together soon, glass-eyed and smiling, everyone hitting the chorus hard. If you’ll sing it along with them while you swap out their empties for fulls, the magic grows stronger. Side note: you can’t really do anything about the cocaine.

Here’s a clip of John talking about mixing up all of Paul Anka’s backstage booze with Steve Goodman. He says they got drunk as hell then they wrote this song. Years later, Steve Goodman paid him for his part in it with a wooden Wurlitzer jukebox, and if that doesn’t make John Prine the Patron Saint of Jukebox Therapy and cement him as a barroom savior, we live on a square planet. David Allen Coe made the song famous, and that’s the one you hear most often.

Angel From Montgomery

You know when a kitten wanders too far and the mama cat comes along and scoops it up by the scruff with her teeth and the baby cat just goes limp and lets her take him back where he belongs? That’s what happens when you push this out through the barroom speakers. If you need your natives to stop being so restless, give them this song. John wrote it; Bonnie owned it.

Any rendition will do when you’re lulling your heathens, but this 1977 version Bonnie Raitt recorded live in Holland mesmerizes me.

When I Get To Heaven

It’s Friday afternoon, your bar is full, and the work week is over for your guys and gals. A carpenter, a painter, two contractors, and an elevator operator are sharing buckets, the sun is coming in through the windows, and you just don’t know how a day could feel finer. Play this song. The Old West kick from the piano, the trucker talk-sing of the verses, and the rollick of the chorus make the best of us smile on the worst of our days and the worst of us feel our best.

Get yourself that cocktail, John, and smoke that cigarette for the rest of us out here.

In Spite of Ourselves

Love grows everywhere, and if you’ve never seen it bloom in a blue-collar tavern, I’m sorry for you. When you really get into the grime of loving, the disappointments and glories of knowing another person inside and out, you’re lying if you don’t feel a little uneven and lucky. I can’t calculate when this one needs to be played. That’s alchemy I don’t understand. I just know when it happens, much like real love—however impossible or unexpected—it’s right. Iris DeMent’s squeaky vocals and John’s humor make this the perfect dive bar love song.

It’s hard to share straight versions of these songs when the storytelling is available. It’s worth your while to hear John talk about playing Billy Bob Thornton’s brother in Daddy and Them, the film he wrote this song for.

Illegal Smile

I’ve found more kinship and consoling between the walls of shitty bars than I’ve seen in any other places, and I’ve been to some spots high and low. So when you’re sitting behind your bar, barkeep, and you’re just swimming in all the love in the world, play this song. Look at your customers, the people who come day in and out to sit together in a place that probably has a crooked owner and at least one clogged toilet—look at the faces and the hearts of the people who tip you extra when they know your transmission went out or you’re hurting for holiday money—and play this one for them.

One thing I’ve learned slinging drinks in unsavory places: we’re all worthy of love, and most of us—no matter what we look like or where we’ve been—don’t mean any harm. We’re just trying to have some fun.

This 2010 Bonnaroo performance encapsulates everything joyful and kind that emanated from John Prine, and if you can watch him smile and play through this singalong without a little sting in your eye, you probably wouldn’t like any of my bars.

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