Photo by the incredibly talented Arius Holifield
John found me when I was in a bad spot in my life.
New Year’s Eve 2016 to be exact.
A boy I couldn’t have been more wrong for and who couldn’t have been more wrong for me have just ended something. The same something we already ended three months before that.
Either way, my heart and my hopes are mashed-up potatoes at the bottom of a blender bowl.
I have an assignment though. With a publication to shoot at the Opry on New Year’s Eve. Kacey Musgraves is playing. And a man named John Prine.
Kacey takes to the Opry stage first. She’s dazzling as always. Beautiful and newly engaged. My heart sinks a little lower thinking about my own current love life.
And then out comes a short, little old man. He’s funny-looking, and looks out at the crowd like they’re funny-looking, too.
He has kind eyes.
He and his band start to play some songs, and crouched down by the side of the stage, I begin to photograph him. I don’t really know his songs, but I like them when I hear them.
And I like him.
And then he starts into a song called “Lake Marie”:
We were standing Standing by peaceful waters
He sings about being up in the northern part of the states. Or maybe it’s in Canada. He sings about hopefully fixing his marriage or catching a fish. Whichever comes first.
The way he sings the story makes me smile.
It’s the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018.
I’m back in Austin now. I no longer photograph. Or write much either. I tell people it’s because I need a break from it—and I do. But the other part of the truth is I don’t want to create because my heart’s broken. And the part of me that used to want to create is still sewn to the heart that broke mine.
So, instead, I work a number of odd jobs, one of which is at a music venue.
A music venue where Willie Nelson will be playing on New Year’s Eve. As I’m headed home to get ready for the evening, an Audi going five miles an hour rear-ends my Honda.
We both pull over to the local Longhorn Steakhouse parking lot off the frontage road. And a dark-haired, dark-eyed man in cowboy boots emerges from the car.
I stammer for my words, and do vinyasa flows next to my vehicle—my back hurts just the slightest—as we file with our insurances.
“I’m sorry we had to meet under such circumstances,” he says in a low voice.
I swallow. I can’t think straight when he looks at me.
We exchange information, and the next day he reaches out to see if my back is okay.
And then he asks if I’m doing anything next Thursday.
We grab ramen at a fancy place on the East side, and he talks about the the way a steak’s flavor can change with the pairing of the right cabernet. I nod. Most of my meals consist of peanut butter Cliff bars from my backpack.
“Do you wanna go dance?”
We head over to the bar I used to frequent when I first lived in Austin: The White Horse. It’s a bar where hipsters with tight jeans two-step to country music. There’s a stage in the corner with red carpets on the ground and a well-lit popcorn machine at the front door. Outside there’s a patio and old piano you can play if you don’t mind pushing hard on the keys.
I don’t mind.
“I haven’t been here since I used to live in Austin the first time I moved here,” I say, leaning towards his ear as I talk over the band. “I love to dance. I used to do ballet when I was young—ten years of it.”
“I wondered that when I first saw you,” his eyes look straight into mine, unraveling me in a way. “My mom was a ballerina.”
We spend the night two-steppin’, and I grin like a five-year-old every time I’m twirled in a circle. We walk to downtown Austin after that—my idea. It’s freezing cold outside, but there’s just this—
“Why are we running,” he shouts to me as we get to the lake’s edge.
There’s this spot down by the water I want him to see.
We talk about our different losses in life. And the early 2000’s. And failed attempts at love.
“I guess the only way you get to know someone is to get to know someone,” I say to him softly as we make our way back to where my rental car is parked.
I get into my car.
He gets into his.
The dark-eyed man and I don’t last, but I do find myself coming back to The White Horse a few times a month now to take things in. Sometimes I bring my camera to photograph the couples twirling each other on the floor, but sometimes I just bring myself. So I can be one of those being twirled on the dance floor.
One day, while riding in my car on the East side, I hear a familiar, steady voice singing words from a scratchy Texas radio station. It hits me in the ribcage. It’s John:
i’d like to stay but i might have to go to start over again i might go down to texas or go to somewhere that i’ve never been
and get up in the morning and go out at night and i won’t have to go home get used to being alone change the words to this song
and start singing again
(“clay pigeons”, written by blaze foley)
It’s new year’s eve 2019, leading into the new decade. I’m at the White Horse by myself this year. I dance with many men—that’s just how they do it down here in Texas—but kiss no one at midnight, and leave by myself soon after. Our giant hug of a music festival is happening in March, and I’ll be writing an article for their magazine. And I do write it, and my editor likes it. But then the virus happens. And everything shuts us down.
I keep writing though. This time, it’s contract writing for a company, but it’s still writing. And I’m starting to photograph critters on the runs that I go on every day at Barton Springs.
And then I see the headline.
I’m on the phone choking on my words to my mother in Nashville.
“John Prine is sick. Can you please pray for John Prine?”
I hang up and call my dad.
“John Prine is sick, dad. Can you please pray for John Prine?”
Never in my 34 years have I ever called up one, let alone both of my parents to pray for anything. But I know they’re both religious, and if anyone’s got a shot in getting a word in to God, it’s gotta be them.
I sit on some park bleachers that night and talk and cry on the phone to an old friend in Nashville. When we finally say our goodbyes, I head to my bed and lay huddled in a fetal position. Praying over and over and over again out loud like no way I’ve ever prayed for someone I’ve never actually met face-to-face.
“Please, God. Please, God. Please don’t take John Prine. Don’t take him yet. He still has more songs in him. Please. We need his songs.”
I take a breath before I fall asleep, and don’t actually say it out loud.
I need his songs.
it’s a few weeks after new year’s eve 2016.
i’ll be in washington, d.c. to potentially cover inauguration and the women’s march.
there’s a photo publication headquartered in d.c. that is the most respected photo publication in the entire world.
i’d like to shoot for them someday.
so i send a colder than iceland, long-shot of an email to the director of photography—who I don’t know and doesn’t know me.
i am a freelance photographer out of nashville. I’ll be in d.c. next week for inauguration, and would very much like to stop by your offices to say hello if you’d be up for it.
i pause. because I don’t want to sound inauthentic.
but there’s something that just keeps ringing true when I stare at her work, and so, i type it:
i’ve also looked at some of your images as well–really beautiful pieces of time that you capture; your…photos remind me of a john prine song called “lake marie.”
i hit send and head to bed. i don’t expect to hear back from her.
but the following day, there’s a message in my box:
thank you for the kind note
is a short one for us as we are closed on monday and friday so I think it will be quite crammed
but let me check my calendar