Talkin’ Muhlenberg County Blues

by Fishspit

OK! OK! I got a story! I’ve been fishing for one a long time. I’m gonna tell it to you all. But wait . . . but wait! It’s two stories in one actually . . . oh hell . . . I’ve already started rambling . . . and I ain’t hardly started yet! Don’t give up on me. I know! Oh reader . . . I know you have to put up with this concerning me all the time. No . . . just . . . well, quit hollering at me! I . . . OK . . . you set? It starts “now” . . . but I’m going to have to be going back and forth. Aaron was there . . . an old pal of mine . . . and he had a little cutie with him. Some little chick chick. Aaron started playing his guitar for us . . . a Townes Van Zandt song he know I like.

When he had finished it we talked a little about Townes, and then the little cutie spoke up and asked, “Have you ever heard of John Prine?” I whipped around and looked at where she was sitting on this rock. Usually I ignore women when they give an opinion, but this time it was different. This girl had just mentioned the name of one of the gods! John Prine! I said, “Girl . . . let me tell you!” And I started telling her a story that I’m going to tell you. I seen John Prine like 17 times . . . so I’s got a lot of John Prine stories. This time I’m gonna tell you about when I met him.

I’m gonna tell you the story I told the little cutie. But this is where it gets complicated dear reader. I gotta tell you another story to set up the story I want to tell you about, by telling another story first. I know dear friend . . . I’m awful tedious . . . but I don’t know how else to do it. I’m no writer! I’m just sort of a spitter of words onto a page. But come along! Come along! Put down that bag of glue you are sniffin’ on and I’ll start.

It was 1988 and John Prine was playing a small theater and I bought tickets for me and my little punk rock gal. I was awful sweet on that gal, and I always wanted to impress her, and although she was a punk rocker I knew she’d dig on John Prine. Back then John Prine often toured with another act and I’d seen where he’d often switch places with the act as to when he’d perform. He’d sometimes play after the headliner as billed on the ticket, or he’d play before a lesser known act that was supposed to open for him.

I never cared for this kind of thing. And when I bought tickets for my gal and me, I never considered this as a possibility because the opening act was such a lot of poofters who had just come onto the scene, and I don’t recall if the term had been coined yet, but they would be called one of them “alternative country acts, and I couldn’t conceive of them headlining for anybody, let alone John Prine.

My gal and me got good and tipsy and headed down to the theatre. I was awful happy and full of liquor and love when we took our seats. John Prine was already playing but I figured he’d just started. He busted into “Paradise” and as he sang “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the green river where paradise lay . . . “I looked over at my girl, full of myself and all cocky (hell, I was showing my date what’s what!), and said, “This is always the last song he plays . . . girl you are getting a special treat . . . you’re seeing him play it early in the show!” I felt so cool showing off my John Prine knowledge like that, and I was sure the rest of the show was gonna blow her socks off so she’d be all gone on John and she’d sigh and think to herself, “My boy is so cool.”

Imagine my surprise when it WAS the last song! My ego was crushed as he said goodnight and told us all to stick around because so and so would be right up. Yeah, he had switched spots with that pack of wankers that was supposed to be opening for him! We didn’t stick around. My buzz was killed, my suavedome was dead, my girl was far from being impressed, and I wanted to drink.

My chance at revenge over this slight to my humble being by Mr. Prine came many years later in Omaha, Nebraska. Me and two of my pals braved a winter storm to see the show there in that whacked out town. We didn’t have tickets and we were shocked when we found that even though the show wasn’t sold out they had closed the box office and weren’t selling any more tickets. We’d never seen anything like that before, and we were shocked. We’d come a long way and now this! We were talking to the door man trying to get him to see the ridiculousness of this, and he’d could see our point but he still wasn’t going to let us in. Then something cool happened. 3 people were leaving the show. They’d never even heard of John Prine. They’d come to see the opening act and were leaving the show. We asked them if they’d give us their ticket stubs and they said, “Sure.” Then we went back and asked the door man if we could get in with their tickets and he said “Sure.” What a whacked out scene. But we were in . . . and we 3 were very drunk and very happy.

During the show I had to piss out some of that  booze, and as I headed to the restrooms I passed the souvenir vendor. I have enough John Prine shirts so I wasn’t interested in anything like that, but they were selling these really cool blue fly swatters that had the “Oh Boy” logo (that’s Mr. Prine’s label) and they had the lyrics from “Angel from Montgomery” imprinted on them: “There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear them in there buzzin’.” A fly swatter is always a wonderful thing to own when you live down South because there’s so many of the bastards you getting to killing a half a dozen a day. Except on picnics and family reunions when the damned things come in droves and you end up killing a good 20 dozen. I bought me a fly swatter.

After the show we were so drunk and happy we didn’t even care that it was like 20 below in Omaha, Nebraska. But on that cold walk back to the car I realized I’d forgotten my fly swatter. “Hey guys!” I said, “I can’t leave without my fly swatter! I gotta go back!” I sent them on to the car and told them I’d be right back. I forgot to give them the keys though. They forgot to ask. No big deal, because this would only take a minute right?

The crowd had gone . . . no one was around. I beat on the doors to the theatre until a fellow poked his nose out. “What the hell?” his look said. I said, “I forgot my fly swatter! I need my fly swatter! Let me go back my seat and get it.” I was asking this to the fellow who had been manning the souvenir stand. He said, “Sure.” And let me in. I went down to where I’d sat but my fly swatter was gone! Somebody had swiped it, or an attendant had cleaned up, or something . . . all I knew was that I wanted one of them goddamned fly swatters. I went straight back to the souvenir seller. I said, “My fly swatter is gone! I want to buy another one.” He was packing up and he said, “I don’t got no more out here, but if you help me carry this shit out back I’ll give you one.” Sure, I’d do that. I picked up a big stack of boxes and he picked up a stack of boxes and we headed down through the theatre to this area in back. He said, “Give me a second while I get things sorted and I’ll dig you out a flyswatter. In the meantime, why don’t you go over there and say ‘Hi’ John. He don’t bite.” I looked around and over on the side of the stage John Prine was sitting at an old wooden school desk talking to some fans and signing autographs. “Cool!” I said and headed on over.

Remember, lovely reader, I was tipsy. Actually I was pretty drunk. Me and my pals had been working on whiskey all the way up to the show and then we’d hit it pretty hard at the bar in the theatre. I stood there weaving while I listened to the insipid chatter of the fans that were talking to John Prine. Goddamned hero worship. It was making me kind of sick. Then Mr. Prine took a long look at me. And I said, “You son of a bitch!” He got an awful funny look on his face. He wasn’t ready for a shellacking like that. I said it again, “You son of a bitch!” And I told him all about that night long ago when he’d ruined my date and left me looking like some sort of chump. I told him all about the “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County” fiasco.

He looked at me for a minute and then he laughed and said, “I’m so sorry. How can I make it up to you?” I said, “I don’t think you can. I’m just here waiting for my fly swatter.” He said, “Well, let’s get you a shirt too.” And me and him walked over the where the souvenir guy was putting things away and he got a shirt and then he pulled out a pen and he signed the shirt. I thought that was pretty cool and I was happy again. I told him, “Thanks!” and he laughed and the other fellow gave me a fly swatter and I headed outside and toward the car . . . thinking all the way, “Now that’s a gentleman!”

Let me tell you about my two friends here for a moment. The one’s I’d come to Omaha with. Now Bryan was a gentle soul . . . but his woman Christina was one tough broad! She pop you in the eye and tap you in the smeller as soon as look at ya! You tip-toed around this chick! Hell, Bryan was more black and blue than he was white. When I got to the car and saw their faces I was like, “Oh shit!” It was the mean look on Christina’s mug that had me worried. I’d kind of forgotten about them with all the getting my fly swatter action. Like I said, it was cold there in Omaha . . . and I’d had the car keys . . . and I’d been gone quite a while actually.” I squeaked out at Christina, “I met John Prine.” That sure didn’t make her puss any sweeter! “Oh you did did ya?” She said. All I could think about was that I’d actually made things worse by saying that and I could picture the sock in the eye that was coming. But then I remembered the shirt! I wanted that shirt . . . I wanted it a lot . . . but I guess I wanted a black eye even less, because I said, “I got this for you Christina! It took a bit to get it, but I persevered! I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna make John Prine give me a signed shirt for my pal Christina if it’s the last thing I do.’ And that’s just what I did Christina!” That got her a little kittenish. As I handed over my shirt her eyes got bright and she said, “Right on! Now let’s get the fuck out of here!” Thus I lost me a shirt but I retained my handsome features.

Here so many years later I got to tell that story to that little cutie with Aaron down beside the coffee shop I hang out at. 25 years after I flubbed trying to impress a chick with my John Prine knowledge, I finally got to do so. And that little chick chick smiled and picked up Aaron’s guitar and played us John Prine’s “Mexican Home.”