Why you should care
Because you’re not on the fence about John Prine, either.
Over the summer, two of my inadvertent amateur endeavors, innkeeping and urban farming, intersected on a problem in common: no eggs. Or, rather, eggs I couldn’t find. I’d promised my forthcoming Airbnb guest “daily fresh eggs, straight from the coop to the cottage doorstep,” but ever since a possum visited the henhouse one night around 4 a.m., three days before my guest would arrive, all three hens, Loop, Lil and Reba, were laying elsewhere. Somewhere out in the thickets and brambles and bushes that form a 15-foot barrier around the perimeter of the backyard. So I went Easter-egg hunting, a 39-year-old man in late August.
No luck. By day two of this, and with my guest imminent, I entertained the idea that I could simply go to the store, buy some brown eggs, maybe even spring for the organic ones, and drop a few in the henhouse each morning when no one was looking — problem solved. Who would know? Who would even care?
It was one of the prettiest things I’d ever heard, just a drop-dead gorgeous song, heartbreaking in the first two notes.
Here’s the truth: When I crack one of my hens’ eggs, I can see the difference. The shell cracks neatly, the yolk is a darker yellow and it holds together better. It’s prettier. But I would fail a taste test. It’s not like your homegrown tomatoes, which taste so much better not because they’re homegrown, by the way, but because they are a different breed, one that doesn’t need to be hardy enough to be shipped across the country. But with eggs, I can’t tell. Eggs taste like eggs to me, store-bought or otherwise.
That night, after I’d locked the hens up in the coop to keep out any more critters, I was relaxing with a glass of bourbon, watching a movie on my computer. The movie was the 2013 comedy Drinking Buddies , which wasn’t bad 10 minutes in when, during a scene in which two attractive people were getting shirtless, the song emanating from the record the almost-shirtless male character had put on got me like a mule kick to the heart. First, it was one of the prettiest things I’d ever heard, just a drop-dead gorgeous song, heartbreaking in the first two notes. And second, how was it I hadn’t heard this John Prine song before?
Do you know Prine’s music? My god, stop reading this and go listen to “Sam Stone” right now if you don’t.
I’m on the fence about a lot of things. I believe in God when I listen to Johnny Cash’s hymns, for instance, but ask me an hour later and I’m back to ambivalent and agnostic. Likewise, when people ask me where I’m from, because I’m equally from Kentucky and southern Indiana, I let context decide. If Kurt Vonnegut or Prine are anywhere near the conversation, I swing Hoosier. I’m not on the fence about Vonnegut or Prine.
Do you know Prine’s music? My god, stop reading this and go listen to “Sam Stone” right now if you don’t. And then listen to “Angel From Montgomery” and “Fish and Whistle” and “Illegal Smile” and “Souvenirs,” and then go ahead and listen to every album you can Spotify before you read what I have to say next.
In Drinking Buddies , I hadn’t stumbled on a lost John Prine song, of course, but on a song by some kid from Missouri named Barna Howard, plucking a guitar in Portland, Oregon. I paused the movie to listen to everything of his I could Spotify. Howard has only one album, it turns out, but I still haven’t finished the movie. Titled “Barna Howard,” it was released, impossibly, only two years ago.
I woke late the next morning and realized I’d forgotten all about the eggs.
“Impossibly” because it sounds more like an acoustic album from 1971 than most acoustic albums from 1971 do. Once you’ve heard songs besides “Turns Around the Bottle,” that track from Drinking Buddies that mule-kicked me, you realize that Howard isn’t just a really talented Prine ripoff. He’s his own thing, and he’s also Jackson C. Frank and Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. He’s some kind of miracle in 2014, the real deal, authentic as fresh eggs.
The night before my Airbnb guest was to arrive, I fell asleep listening to the album again. I woke late the next morning and realized I’d forgotten all about the eggs, and on top of everything else I needed to do — like whack weeds and wash towels and wipe dried urine off the toilet bowl — I had to figure out the egg situation. I took my coffee with me and went looking again, out in the brush at the yard’s edge, with a Barna Howard song still in my head, one about Tinker Creek, which had me thinking about Annie Dillard, who once wrote that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Here I was, spending my days.
I found an egg a few minutes later, resting against the tire of one of the pickup trucks. Laid by Loop, by the looks of it, freckled with little brown dots on the tapered end. When my guest arrived, I handed it to her and told her that it hadn’t come easy, and that it was worth the effort if she wanted to search the weeds in the morning.
This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 8, 2014.