People don’t listen to Rock FM radio much these days. It’s become outdated by the plethora of streaming services, satellite radio, and internet radio. However, it wasn’t always that way. There was a day when FM was the Wild West of rock and roll radio. Casting aside the mono pop radio of the AM bandwidth, stations popped up across the FM dial. It was perfect for rock and roll – they refused to follow convention, shunned playlists, and introduced new artist regardless of their spot on the Billboard Top 100.
By the time I started high school in the early seventies much of rock FM radio was listed as Adult Oriented Rock (AOR) and had begun to develop playlists for said genre. Still, there were the musical rebels that played all the albums (yes Virginia, there is such a thing as vinyl recordings) and tracks not found on the AOR stations. They tended to be somewhat obscure – hidden on the dial by their limited range and smaller broadcast wattage. When I found one it was a true treasure. It’s where I discovered everything from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to Bob Marley or Jackson Browne. It’s also where I discovered John Prine.
I was driving down the highway in my ’67 Chevy Impala SS, listening to one of those maverick stations when I heard “Hello In There” for the first time. It was by this guy named John Prine and honestly, it brought tears to my eyes. If it could elicit that kind of emotional response, I had to check this guy out. I bought his debut album the next day. It started a relationship with his music that still goes on today and I still say “Hello In There”.
Fast forward to 2020 – FM radio is a stereo version of AM pop music and vile talk radio. What’s now considered “classic” rock is anything but classic. It was commercially successful among Baby Boomers back then and lacks any of the substance of FM radio’s glory days. The hidden treasures I once valued died an ignominious death at the hands of corporate media giants.
Sadly, not only is FM radio gone, but the world lost another treasure – John Prine. He died of complications from COVID-19 last Tuesday. I was in my truck on the way back from the farm when I heard the news. I still listen to FM radio, but I’ve traded the commercial crap for National Public Radio and some local Red Dirt radio (if I need to explain, you wouldn’t understand…).
I, like so many others, have spent the week listening to tributes, old interviews, and a constant stream of a lifetime of John Prine music. The songs took me back to the first time I heard “Illegal Smile” and knew exactly what he was talking about. That smile faded as I became older and began to identify with his classic “Sam Stone”. Originally titled “Great Society Conflict Veterans Blues” it became one of his greatest protest songs. For me, it became too real. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”
Thank you, John Prine, for a lifetime of sarcasm, wit, reality, and truth. That’s why he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. That’s why he’s an American treasure. That’s why I miss him…