When John Prine was introduced to the city of Gulfport, according to Fiona Whelan Prine, it was love at first sight. “It was like he landed in the landscape of one of his songs. It was just magical to him.”
Prine died due to complications from Covid-19 one year ago, on April 7, 2020, the day after the couple’s 24th wedding anniversary. He was 73.
“For the most part, I’m doing OK,” his wife reports. “I’m very grateful to have the work that I have, taking care of John’s legacy and helping run his record company, Oh Boy Records. We’ve had a busy year and it’s definitely helped to have that distraction.
“But I miss John, of course. It’s hard to believe that it’s a year, honestly.”
Prine, the beloved Midwestern singer/songwriter whose work seamlessly combined aching poetic verse and pathos with wry humor, met Fiona Whelan in her native Ireland in the late 1980s.
They spent part of their honeymoon on St. Pete Beach – one of John’s favorite places – and returned at least once every year so their three sons could enjoy the Gulf beaches during spring break from school. The music legend forged numerous rock-solid friendships in the area.
“Over the years, especially after John got cancer, he wasn’t going to be lying out on the beach,” Fiona explains. “He wasn’t one for that kind of thing, anyway. But I would hang out at the pool with the kids.
“And he would invariably run off to a car show with Joe Nuzzo, or some other harebrained notion that Johnny Green might take. And they would head off for a couple of hours.”
It was 2005 when the Prines decided to make things a little more permanent.
“One day,” she recalls, “he was off on one of his jaunts with Johnny Green, who at that time was managing the casino in Gulfport. And Johnny said ‘Come over here, I want to show you this house.’ John went over and immediately fell in love with it.”
Summoned (from poolside at the Don CeSar) by her husband, she loved it too. “Walked in and absolutely fell hook, line and sinker for the house, the community, everything. And it seemed like we spent the last 15 years of John’s life trying to get back there more often.
“But he got busier and busier. We didn’t always get to spend as much time as we would have liked to. But I certainly have now. It’s part of our family story, as much as Ireland is.”
Indeed, Fiona says, her boys pretty much grew up in Gulfport. The family tended to spend summers in Ireland, and also kept a house in Nashville, near the music business, but Gulfport was always something special.
“That little home is very important to me,” she says. “I’ll be keeping that for my refuge for quite a while.”
Looking at life
“He was talking about his mortality when he was in his 20s. ‘Please Don’t Bury Me’ was written as a very young man. John had a simple but profound way of looking at life. And he was very aware that life and death were absolutely entwined. That we were all traveling in the one direction.”
The last song on what turned out to be Prine’s final album was called “When I Go to Heaven.” Typically, the subject matter is undercut with belly laughs:
I wanna see all my mama’s sisters/’Cause that’s where all the love starts
I miss ’em all like crazy/Bless their little hearts
And I always will remember these words my daddy said
He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead pecker-head”
I hope to prove him wrong/That is, when I get to heaven.
He recorded one last song, on Thanksgiving Day 2019, and Fiona released it a few months after her husband’s death. In “I Remember Everything,” Prine seemed to be taking stock of the things that mean the most to him:
I remember everything
Things I can’t forget
Swimming pools of butterflies
That slipped right through the net
And I remember every night
Your ocean eyes of blue
How I miss you in the morning light
Like roses miss the dew.
“I do think that John, in the last couple of years of his life, was as apt not to get into the humor of things,” Fiona explains. “I think he was more willing to get down into his own feelings. Because a lot of the songs he wrote in the past were second or third person, or he was describing somebody else’s situation. He was using a lot of metaphor to describe his own situation.
“But I think this song is as personal, really, as he had gotten in recent years. Talking about his own life. I think that maybe happens when you get older. I mean, he was not that old, but he had made it to 73, and he was grateful, for sure.”
His gratitude most certainly extended to the doctors who’d saved him from cancer in 1996 (resulting in the removal of tissue from his neck) and 2013 (in his left lung). Both episodes were life-threatening, life-affirming and life-changing.
“He definitely felt very fortunate, very blessed to have recovered from that first serious cancer in 1996,” his wife remembers. “And then he would always jokingly say ‘Well, it’s unlikely now that cancer will ever kill me,’ because they kept such a close eye on him. He was diligent about all of that stuff – he would go for all of his checkups. He never missed anything that he knew would help keep cancer out of his body.”
The coronavirus snuck up on them like a thief in the night.
“Covid, excuse the pun, infected everything about our grief. I couldn’t be with my family in Ireland, and they couldn’t be with me. That was very difficult. That’s the longest time I’ve spent away from them. And then of course my boys and I were very careful, because we know what Covid can do at its worst.
“All that to say that we will meet for the first time on Wednesday, all of us. In fact, most all of us have been fully vaccinated.”
Like every showbiz career that lasts for five decades, Prine’s had its highs and lows. Happily, he went out on a high note. He was named Artist of the Year at the 2017 and ’18 Americana Music Awards; in 2019, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Posthumously, Prine was named the honorary Poet Laureate of his native Illinois.
Most importantly, Fiona relates, was the recognition and appreciation he’d begun to receive from a younger generation of fans. “I think he got to know that and see that in the last five or six years of his life. It was not as easy for him to ramble around Nashville in his dirty black T-shirt. No matter where we went, there was always somebody … but John always appreciated that attention, if you will.
“It was less attention and more like it was somebody who was running into a friend. Maybe they’d never met him before, but there was a connection there between John and his fans.”