THE SCARIEST THING I ever saw was the night Elvin Anderson and Chuck Paxton decided to drag race. Which in itself wasn't so bad, but they were arguing about who was the quickest off the line, and they decided to race from the foot of the Elkview Bridge to the main highway, a distance later stepped off by the state police at 36 yards. They were going to come roaring up this little ramp-like section of road and Chuck was going to turn right, up U.S. 119 towards Clendenin, and Elvin was supposed to go left. Everybody came out of the Elkview Dairy Bar to watch. On the other side of the main highway there was a three-foot ditch and a twenty-foot rock cliff. Somebody asked Elvin what he'd do if he couldn't make the turn and hit the cliff. Elvin said he'd jump that son-of-a-bitch.
They sat in their cars, obviously the hottest around--Chuck, in a 1969 Camaro, brand-new 454 modified stock engine they came out with that year, Holly carbs, and Elvin in a '68 Mach I, special Ford 427 four-speed, a quick rear end, a 3.97 I think. Both cars had huge tires wrapped around Cragar mags, jacked-up front-and-rear. Bootleg cars, the epitome of American technology devoted, as it so often is, to breaking the law. And because I was just as drunk as they were, and very nearly as foolish, I stood out between them with my arms raised, and their headlights illuminated me like a Christian idol on some South American mountain top. I dropped my arms, and the two cars slid by me spitting and kicking gravel.
Of course they didn't make it. Chuck kept his foot on the gas, slid backwards into the cliff, totalled the car and walked away from it. But Elvin lost his nerve, hit the brakes, couldn't make the turn, went headfirst into a stationwagon full of people coming up the river from Charleston. Two people got killed, Elvin one of them. I was the first to get to the car, and as soon as I did it blew up.
THAT PART of the country produced Loretta Lynn, innumerable professional athletes, and from Loundes Country in east Kentucky where my father went to high school, John Prine. For five years and four albums, Prine has been hanging in there as a cult figure. He was pretty much the originator of A.C.--alternative country--the kind of bent-out-of-shape country music that comes easy if you had to grow up with Roy Acuff and Porter Waggoner and WSL-Nashville and Martha White biscuits and their goddamn commercials. The best of John Prine's songs are about what it is to grow up in and hate a rural town, hating Main Street and the Baptist preachers and Vietnam and racism, but alwasy coming back because face it-what can a city offer to someone who's known a better life? So now we have what amounts to a collection of John Prine's greatest hits, although since he's never had a hit he really can't call it that, and the album's name is Prime Prine.
Perhaps a better introduction to Prine would be his 1973 album Sweet Revenge, from which four of the 12 songs on this set are culled. Short as a two-minute warning is "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," a song about having relatives whom you love very much but really can't deal with. Prine's grandpa takes him to church, lets him listen to the radio, and then the chorus goes:
Grandpa was a carpenter, built houses, stores and banks
Chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, and hammered nails in planks
He was level on the level
Shaved even every door
Voted for Eisenhower
'Cause Lincoln won the war.
Then there's "Sweet Revenge," from the album of the same name. The hero is an iconoclast and finally the milkman gives him till noon to get out of town; he's come home way too soon, and "besides that, we never liked you anyway."
"Please Don't Bury Me" gives a classic country cliche a new twist. Woke up. Put on my slippers. Went into the kitchen. And died. Then Prine howls "please don't bury me in that cold, cold ground/No I'd druther have'em cut me up and pass me all around." The other songs are very nearly all just as inspired. There are paeans to rural drug use--"Illicit Smile": Please don't arrest me sir, I'm smiling because I feel no pain, not because I killed somebody--like one of you Babbitts. Probably has no meaning to you unless you used to get stoned and run pick-up trucks into trees.
PRINE ALSO pays homage to Dear Abby. "Well I never thought me and my girl friend would ever get caught, we was sittin' in the back seat, just shootin' the breeze, with her hair up in curlers and her jeans to her knees. Signed, Just Married." Remember, this is the Bible Belt. Then there's "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregarde," about everybody's friend who's become a Moonie.
But the most touching song is "Sam Stone," about a Vietnam vet who comes back a heroin addict. The gravel-voiced Prine is the man's child, singing: "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes," and the effect is chilling.
I used to wonder what made me stand at the Elkview Bridge with a drunken chill along the base of my spine and start those two boys at that cliff, and what made them want to try it in the first place. But I think John Prine would know. It was the strangling to death in a claustrophobic small town, the desperation of it--and not some quiet desperation, either. It was as real and loud as the shout from Elvin Anderson's yelping GT-60 8.20s as he went slip-sliding into that stationwagon. But home, for me and for Prine, is a place of contradictions, a place where true natural beauty can give away around the next turn to the ugly slash of a strip mine, where the people seem more alive and you can get killed as easy as next Saturday night. A lot of days I'm glad I have Boston and The New York Times and the current cinema. I make up stupid country songs and laugh at the women's circle of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Clendenin (South); but O God: there are times when I want to go home so bad, just sit on the porch with a glass of bourbon and watch smoke curl out of my father's pipe and the cars across the river. Then I go back to my room and close the door and listen to John Prine.