Updated: Jul 27, 2020
By Jim Nichols
We lost a remarkable artist to COVID-19 last week, John Prine.
Prine was one of the finest and most acclaimed songwriters ever, a remarkable folk-country performer, and a major influence on a generation or two of musical artists. He was s
pecial to me for all that and because of the three days I spent in his company some forty-odd years ago.
It happened back in the seventies. Prine, who by then had recorded such classics as “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery,” was out on tour with Steve Goodman, who would later win a Grammy for his American standard, “City of New Orleans.” They were making it work, but it was still a low-budget affair.
I was just a young guy working as a driver for the Portland Airport Limousine Company. One July day at the Jetport, I happened to be first in line when Prine, Goodman, and their road manager, Danny Cronin, stepped off a Delta flight and came looking for a ride to East Stoneham, located northwest of Sebago Lake, where they were booked to play the Evergreen Valley Music Festival.
This was much more than a money-maker for me, because Prine was already one of my musical heroes. I ushered them into the black Cutlass—gave a smug look to my buddy Steve, who, standing second in line, immediately flipped me off—and away we went.
It turned out to be a fare for the ages.
Prine was quiet, but amiable, Goodman was a joker, and Cronin, who sat in the front next to me, was just plain nice. During the next two hours I grew comfortable enough with them to let slip that I'd been playing (rudimentary) guitar and writing (three-chord) songs for all of a year. I was nervous to mention this, but Goodman immediately blurted out, "Well, let's hear something! A capella!"
The way I remember it, I launched into the chorus of my latest creation, the “Church's Fried Chicken Song,” which featured the immortal lines: Wait on the customers, pick up the lot, sweat like a chicken when the weather gets hot.
It got me a laugh.
For the rest of the drive I was more mascot than hired driver, and by the time we reached East Stoneham they decided I should call my boss and tell him they needed me for the entire three days of the festival, so they'd have someone to drive them around between shows and run any errands they might need run.
And that's what I did. It was a dream gig. I got to sit around the pool during the day, watch the performances (the Eagles had backed out, but Poco took their place and Ramblin' Jack Elliot showed up, too) and hang out with my new friends and other musicians afterward in the hotel, where they gathered every night to drink and smoke and play and sing for the sheer fun of it.
We all sat around and they played a lot of old country and bluegrass songs from the likes of The Louvin Brothers and Tom T. Hall. It often became the Steve Goodman show; he was an amazing guitarist and seemingly knew every song ever written. Prine joined in enough to make it memorable.
I, of course, never wanted it to end. But it did, and so, mostly, did my short-term status as friend to the artists. Soon I was a driver again, and we were on the way back to Portland. Everyone was tired and not even Goodman had enough energy to joke around. Nobody said much of anything. By the time we got to the Jetport and they'd piled out, grabbed their gear, and trudged into the terminal, I had to remind myself to be content with how nice they'd been for three days and what an amazing gig I'd had and how jealous my fellow driver Steve would be.
But then Prine came back out of the terminal, walked over and in his squinting way looked me in the eye, held out his hand, and said, "Thanks, man, almost forgot." And that made all the difference.
RIP John Prine, we won't see your like again. And, that goes for Steve Goodman, too.
Jim Nichols, who has worked a variety of jobs including bartender, pilot, taxi driver, orange picker, travel agent, and dispatcher for an air taxi service, has written three novels, including the award-wining Closer all the Time and Blue Summer, which is scheduled for release in August 2020.