When he saw the Facebook post, Gabe Whitney told his wife and kids, “We gotta do this.”
The mayor of Gulfport was planning a tribute for singer John Prine, who was in intensive care, suffering from the coronavirus. At 6 p.m. Monday, residents were invited to step outside their homes, where everyone was quarantined, and play a Prine song. Or sing really loud.
“I thought the Prine family should know how near and dear they are to Gulfport,” Mayor Sam Henderson wrote on his homepage. “Do some safe-distance hootin’ and hollerin’ … Show the love for them.”
Prine, 73, has owned a home in Gulfport since 2005. He and his wife often spend time in their sea-green bungalow a block from the beach. Residents swap sightings of the songwriter at the carwash, eating pasta, jamming with local musicians.
For Whitney, the connection is personal. The first music he ever heard was John Prine’s; his dad played the early albums when Whitney was still in his crib. The first song he ever air-drummed to was one of Prine’s, when Whitney was in second grade. A Prine song helped Whitney woo his wife.
“He made me a better musician, better songwriter, better storyteller,” Whitney said. “His descriptions are so simple, but in those people’s little lives, you see the larger world.”
With hundreds of Prine songs to choose from, spanning Whitney’s lifetime, which one should his family band play on their porch?
Prine was a Chicago mailman who started writing folky songs for his friends in the late 1960s. Eventually, they convinced him to perform at an open mic night, where Kris Kristofferson heard him. Kristofferson talked Prine into recording his first album, self-titled, in 1971 — which earned him a Grammy nomination for best new artist.
Over the next five decades, Prine recorded 21 more albums and won two Grammys. His basic chord progressions and poignant lyrics about life, love and loneliness have influenced musicians like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Roger Waters.
“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan told the Huffington Post in 2009. He quoted Prine’s Sam Stone, “featuring the wonderfully evocative line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.’ Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
In 1998, Prine got squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck. Surgery damaged his tongue and salivary glands, but after a year of speech therapy, he was out singing again — with a much more gravelly voice. In 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer in his left lung, which was removed. Six months later, he was back on tour.
He was supposed to be performing in Australia next week. But on March 29, Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, tweeted that he had been hospitalized. “He needs our prayers and love,” she wrote, “as do the thousands of others who are critically ill.”
Dozens of people shared the Gulfport mayor’s post, promising to participate. Soon others from across the country left messages. Everyone had a story about how Prine’s songs touched them, how much they need him now.
“Okay, you all ready? Let’s figure this out,” Whitney said outside his home at 5:50 p.m. Monday. He had set a music stand in the front yard, propped his phone on it to record.
His wife, Jennifer, was cradling a ukulele. His son Quin, 16, shouldered an acoustic bass. Daughter Lyla, 11, had a guitar.
“Can we all fit on the steps?” Whitney asked.
“I’ll sit on the side,” Jennifer said, perching on the top stair. “Do you know all the words?”
Whitney smiled. “I got this.”
He had wanted to sing That’s The Way The World Goes ’Round. Lyla likes It’s A Big Old Goofy World. Quin prefers Led Zeppelin.
Jennifer suggested Dear Abby, since that was their song.
They had started hanging out when they were in middle school. Every time they made out, she got nervous and her belly rumbled. So he played Prine’s song that includes the line, “My stomach makes noises whenever we kiss.” Jennifer fell in love with the music, and Whitney. They’re 44 and 43 now.
When their son was 4, he begged to learn guitar. Whitney tried to get him lessons, but no one would take a student that young. So Whitney quit his job at a private investigation company and started a music school in downtown St. Petersburg. He named it after another line from Dear Abby: Noisemakers. Whitney teaches all his students John Prine songs.
“Okay, let’s do this. 1, 2, 3, 4 … ”
In other yards around Gulfport, people pulled beach chairs into a circle and sang Illegal Smile. A couple wearing face masks stood beneath their homemade banner: “Dear John, Get Well Soon, signed Gulfport, and Rick and Roger.” Their neighbor pulled out a guitar, set up an amp and played Hello In There while his new bride sipped white wine and sang along.
People riding bikes, walking their dogs, strolling to the park stopped to listen. A man on a motorcycle honked and waved. A toddler in a pink tutu danced in the grass.
Whitney strummed guitar on his steps, singing to his wife and kids, hoping, somehow, the karma would help his hero. In a world of lock-downs and looming uncertainty, Prine’s lyrics seemed more prescient than ever:
You have no complaint
You are what your are and you ain't what you ain't
So listen up buster, and listen up good
Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood …
The next night, Gulfport got word, along with the rest of the world: Prine had died.