JOURNAL EXCERPT: Don’t Forget to Write, by John Prine
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was the Screen Door — the final page — of the Spring 2019 issue (“Standards & Stanzas”) of No Depression‘s quarterly journal. We were so honored that John Prine agreed to write it for us, and so delighted by how much his personality shined through, and we wanted to share it with all our readers. To support No Depression‘s music journalism in print and online, including artist essays like this one, please consider a subscription.
I love to write songs.
I hate to write songs.
I should write another song…
When will I write another song?
I started messing with writing songs when I was about 14 years old. I had an arch top guitar that my folks bought for me after I had picked it out from the Sears Christmas catalog. It was a beautiful blue with a cream-colored heart on it. They called it “Kentucky Blue.” The strings seemed to me to be about an inch above the fretboard, and although it was hard as hell to hold those first chords, I looked great with that blue beauty hanging ’round my neck. I still have that guitar.
I guess the reason I first started writing my own songs was because I had so much trouble remembering other people’s lyrics. To me, it just seemed rather easy to rhyme the words.
It really came down to “What do you want to write about?” I always had a big imagination. I was not the best student at school. In fact, I was a dedicated daydreamer. The one class I always did well in was English composition, especially if we were asked to write dialogue. I was really good at that.
So, my earliest attempts at songwriting were these two songs. The first one was called “The Frying Pan.” It’s about a guy who comes home from work, walks in the kitchen to see what’s cooking for dinner, and finds a “Dear John” letter in the frying pan. This tells the listener two things right away: First, maybe if the guy didn’t always head straight for the kitchen as soon as he got home to see what was cooking, he wouldn’t have found a “Dear John” letter waiting for him in the frying pan. I mean, perhaps he should have first taken care of business in another room in the house. And second, well, I’ve forgotten what the second thing is. I frequently do that, not because I’m that forgetful. It just takes me so many words to explain myself that I forget the point that I was making.
The second song I wrote was called “Sour Grapes.” This was the first song that I wrote that had a minor chord in it. Now, minor chords are a whole other world. When you hit a minor chord, it often means that bad things are about to happen. Either the main character is going to get a deadly disease or maybe worse yet, get his heart broken. Why, he might even drag the one that has been unfaithful down to the river, stab her, and drown her. Well, I’m sure you get the picture! However, my song “Sour Grapes” wasn’t that drastic. It was more about what other people’s expectations are and what they think you should do as you walk through your own life.
By the way, 10 years after I wrote these two songs, I recorded them for my second album, Diamonds in the Rough. I’ll be darned if they didn’t sound just exactly like the songs I had written when I was a 14-year-old kid growing up in Maywood, Illinois! I guess that means I either came out of the box a fully formed songwriter or it was just dumb luck.
I have been writing songs for almost 60 years now. I still write a lot on my own but I really enjoy co-writing with my good buddies here in Nashville, Tennessee. To be honest, sometimes songwriting is just the excuse for us to get together. Often we just go have lunch and catch up on what’s going on. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get to write a song or two. Or maybe we just end up with plans for a fishing trip!
I have to say that songwriting is a great way to make a living. You get to rhyme a bunch of words, whistle up a new melody, and if you’re lucky enough, somebody that can actually sing might end up making a hit record out of your song. Then, men, women, and children will go around humming your tune and massacring your precious lyrics. And best thing of all is — you get to sleep late!
So, if you are a songwriter, keep some lead in your pencil, a fresh legal pad close by at all times, and let your dreams flow. Oh! And yeah, don’t forget to write!
All the best,
Your friend John Prine