Sturgill Simpson has had a busy year. He just put out a new record The Ballad of Dood & Juanita and his cover of John Prine’s Paradise has just dropped. Now, Prine’s original is a favourite of mine and it is always dicey covering someone as accomplished as John Prine. There is a definite risk of taking on too much and falling short with such a beloved track. Fortunately, Simpson treats the original with respect and puts is own spin on it.
Unlike Prine’s folky original, Simpson brings his traditional soulful country to the track. The original song is about a man reminiscing about fond memories he spent as a child in a country town, only to find that the nature has been stripped bare by a coal mining company. Prine sings about how capitalism and corporate greed has ravaged the country and left nothing but destruction. Even paradise is not safe from progress.
At the centre of Paradise is the violence of progress and the victims the “progress of man” leaves behind. Prine’s version has a more stripped back Woody Guthrie social activist vibe to it, while Simpson’s fuller country version lacks this early activist folk vibe. Simpson gives the song more of a Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn vibe. In Simpson’s version, I find myself more drawn to the human victims of progress, as opposed to environmental destruction. Not only is nature the victim, but the workers and the town itself are left behind. Working class men and women were used by the coal company for profit and left when they were no longer important. Progress is only a gift for the rich. Such working class themes are core to country music and Simpson leans into that vibe.
John Prine was an amazing storyteller and a national treasure. Paradise highlights everything that is great about Prine’s work and Simpson does a fantastic job with it. Covers are tricky to pull off, but Simpson does a fantastic job.
Listen to Paradise