I’ve been playing lead guitar in John Prine‘s band since 1996. That’s 20 years as of this writing. (Yes, I was 3 years old when John hired me. OK, I was 26, but who’s counting.) A year or two ago, I decided to make a record of songs written by other songwriters. The working title of the record was “A Song For You”, after the Leon Russell song that inspired the whole project, but I ended up calling it “ECHOES“. Anyway, I knew I wanted to include one of John Prine’s songs, but had a hard time choosing which one. Part of my selection criteria for the songs on ECHOES was that I have something unique to bring to the song in terms of the performance and arrangement.
So I was driving around one day– a lot of my best ideas happen when I’m driving I guess, not that they’re always that good, they just happen to be my best ones –and I had the radio turned off and was singing to myself. Just random bits of songs as they floated through my mind. I started singing “When I was a child, my family would travel” but since I didn’t have any accompaniment, I just sang kind of an a cappella blues version. And I thought, “hey that’s kind of cool.” It kind of brings a different feel to the lyrics, but it’s very much in keeping with the sentiment. So I filed the idea away for future use. Several years later when it was time to record ECHOES, I remembered it.
As I was considering “Paradise” for inclusion on ECHOES, an interesting parallel occurred to me. One that I’d never thought of during all the years I’d worked with John Prine, during which I’m sure I’d played this song 1000 or more times. This was that the story John tells in Paradise was similar to one in my own childhood. His family drove from Chicago down to western Kentucky to visit their ancestral home in Paradise. My family would drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana down to southern Indiana to visit my grandparents and cousins in the little town of Bruceville where my parents grew up.
Like Paradise, Bruceville was a small coal mining town. The coal company didn’t haul my parents little town away, they just closed down the mines when they were no longer profitable. But it was a neat little town when I was a kid, with a general store and a small post office. I wrote about Bruceville a bit in my song “My Great Uncle Jim“.
I think the reason “Paradise” has been recorded by so many artists, and sung along with by so many audiences over the years, is that it speaks to an archetypical notion or a universal experience that we all can identify with, regardless of where your family is from. At some point in life you’re struck by the bittersweet realization that the people, places, and things you knew in your childhood are just memories now.To paraphrase the song: the passage of time has hauled them away. Because even if the people and places are still there, you can’t ever really go back to them. You’re no longer the child you once were. And all of those times past, both good and bad, are long gone.
Paradise appears on ECHOES: