John Prine died from COVID in April of this year; however, he was able to record one final gem with Kurt Vile. They did a duet of Prine’s How Lucky that he recorded in 1979 for the Pink Cadillac record. This is an excellent example of Prine’s lyrical nuance and storytelling. Moreover, this track showcases Kurt Vile’s admiration for Prine and his desire to take on the role of America’s next musical storyteller.
Musically, this track is almost note for note like the original in 1979. However, Vile adds mandolin, tambourine, an extra acoustic guitar and harmonica throughout the mix. These added instruments do not clutter the track, but give it some added warmth and a feeling of Prine and Vile jamming out on the back porch with some local musicians. Prine plays more of a rhythm guitar to Vile’s acoustic lead with a number of sweet acoustic flourishes. Vile has a distinct playing and vocal style, a sort of shoe-gazer / slacker style where you wonder if he ever does a second take…and if he does a second take, how does he know the difference from the first one? It is an unassuming relaxed stye that suits this track well.
Lyrically, this track is amazing in its simplicity and the duet structure Vile employs reinforces thematic elements that run throughout the track. In essence, the song tells a story of a man walking down a familiar street after many years away. The song is about change and how you believe you know a place like the back of your hand, but when you revisit it you hardly recognise it. Prine sings: “Today I walked down the street I use to wander / Yeah, scratched my head and lit my cigarette / Well, there was all these things that I don’t think I remember / Hey, how lucky can one man get.” We all experience this when we get back to our hometown. We see our old elementary school, movie theatre or corner hangout, but it’s now surrounded by buildings we have no knowledge of. All at once a place is both familiar and foreign. It is as if you are experiencing it again for the first time. It is similar to memory in general. We have distinct memories from youth, but as we get older we see things differently and something we have always known is now totally different. In a sense, we are lucky because we get to experience that instance, or town, all over again for the first time.
The duet between Vile and Prine is a tangible embodiment of the song’s theme of change and conflict between the old and new. Much like the speaker experiencing the old street in a new way, we are given a fresh look at Prine’s track from 1979. Vile’s vocals sound both familiar and new. He sounds similar to a young John Prine, but has the delivery of a modern indie rocker. Similarly, we hear Prine sing a track he originally recorded more than 40 years ago. Prine has a familiar glimmer of the young man who sang these lyrics in his 30s, but his voice now shows age, time and wear. It is a voice that has been through countless joys, pains and celebrations. In a way, Prine is singing about himself and how lucky he is to have the opportunity to revisit these tracks in a new way and continue sharing them with the world.
This track may be the last piece of studio recorded music from Prine before his death. If it is, he left us with a wonderful lesson and brilliant song. Prine’s easy and wise spirit moves through the track and his delivery shows his wisdom and passion for both music and life. Kurt Vile holds up his end of the track and acts as a great foil for his musical hero. You can feel the admiration Vile has for Prine and that respect makes for an amazing track and one of my favourite tracks of 2020.
Listen to How Lucky