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John Prine Goes Back to What's Left of Paradise

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And daddy won’t you take me

back to Muhlenberg County,

Down by the Green River

where Paradise lay.

Well, I’m sorry my dear

but you’re too late in asking,

Mr. Peabody’s coal train

has hauled it away.

—John Prine.

There really is—or rather was—a town called Paradise in Kentucky, but it sat atop America’s mother lode of coal and smack in the inexorable path of the monstrous strip-mining machine of the Peabody Coal Co. As it happened, the area was also the ancestral home of folk singer John Prine, and 10 years ago, he wrote an affecting ballad about Paradise lost—not so much an ecological protest song but more a remembrance of his late daddy. Prine’s tale touched John Denver and the Everly Brothers, among other names who also recorded it, but at the time Paradise never cut any swath through the top-40 charts.

Then, last year, Peabody Coal, a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper Co., went on a counteroffensive against the anti-strip-mine agitators and published a screed titled Facts vs. Prine. “Indirectly,” Peabody noted in one of its more hyperbolic arguments, “we probably helped supply the energy to make that recording that falsely names us as ‘hauling away’ Paradise, Kentucky.”

Prine, his curiosity and sentimentality rising rather more than his dander, returned to Paradise the other day to check out the facts for himself. He revisited the Green River banks, where he spent all his early summers and where his grandfather once ran the ferry and “loved to sit around and do a little singing and picking.” Granddaddy was accomplished enough to strum with the father of the Everly Brothers and with Merle Travis, and helped teach John to play his first $28.95 mail-order guitar.

In talking to kin and other folks still around, Prine concluded that the laying waste of Paradise was perhaps more complex than his lyrics suggested, and that not the least of the culprits was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has a power plant there. Then, he returned home to Chicago and to the reclusive privacy he enjoys with the high school sweetheart he married in the factory suburb of Melrose Park.

John, now 27, had worked as a mailman until four years ago, when Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka uncovered him moonlighting at a tavern in Chicago’s Old Town. Prine has since written songs for each of them, and hits like Pretty Good, Souvenirs and Hello in There for performers like Dylan, Midler and Baez. But Prine still lives in the same old neighborhood, still composes the same old blue-collar blues and limits his performances to five nights a month. John Prine, his successes aside, is a diffident star with a different definition of what is Paradise.