Ash Wednesday with an Angel from Montgomery
Make me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster
Of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this livin’
Is just a hard way to go
Each year, on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, I try to focus some attention on a musical artist or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find echoes of the Lenten journey. In past years we’ve considered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and singer-songwriters Neil Young, and Nick Drake.
This year, we’ll be listening to an old familiar folkie friend — John Prine.
John Prine was born in the Chicago suburbs into a musical family. He began playing guitar at the age of 14, and, returning to Chicago after a stint in the Army, became a staple of the Chicago folk scene. Kris Kristofferson helped him land a record contract, and Prine has been producing music ever since.
Though his career has been long and critically-acclaimed, Prine has never had a lot of commercial success. He has been one of those songwriters and performers that other artists adore and work with, but who has rarely received his due despite their support and a loyal fan following. For a good retrospective of the idiosyncratic path he’s taken, read Alex Heigl’s piece, “The Grammy’s Catch Up to a Genius Songwriter (Again).”
2018 was a great year for Prine, when his album Tree of Forgiveness became the best-selling record of his career, also earning him 3 Grammy nominations. Here’s a brief review I wrote about Tree of Forgiveness last fall:
One of the best new albums I’ve heard lately comes from an old friend — John Prine. It’s called “The Tree of Forgiveness,” and it’s his first release of new songs in 13 years. This fine record features not only the old master but also some of my favorite contemporary musicians and songwriters, like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Sturgill Simpson, and Brandi Carlisle.
John Prine has twice survived cancer now, having most recently recovered from lung cancer. He’d had neck cancer in the late 1990s. He told Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that these illnesses and treatments changed his voice enough that he can bear to listen to himself sing now.
Prine has always been a master of language and a clever observer of human nature in all its down-to-earth forms. And this new album carries on the tradition with a strong program of Prine poetic insights. As Will Hermes said at Rolling Stone, “It’s very good, frequently brilliant, with all the qualities that define Prine’s music.”
Like the best of the singer-songwriters, Prine weaves tales about common people’s lives that range from intimate and personal to comic, often venturing into social commentary and protest. One of his best known songs, covered famously by Bonnie Raitt, is Angel from Montgomery, the tale of a woman whose unfulfilling life and marriage cause her to dream of flying away.
That’s right: to believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go sometimes.
And so the Lenten season begins.