“John is on a walk somewhere in Chicago,” Timothy Showalter, who records as Strand of Oaks, sing on his upcoming album In Heaven. “Losing our leaders/Who you gonna follow?”
The “John” he’s singing about is John Prine, the late country-folk songwriter who died last year from complications due to Covid-19. Showalter grew up in Indiana, just a couple hours away from the big city of Chicago, where Prine was from. His latest song, “Somewhere in Chicago,” pays tribute to his late hero — not just by name-checking him, but by emulating the calming, sing-song nursery rhyme cadence of Prine’s best tunes.
“It’s a song for John Prine, growing up Midwestern, the goodness I learned from my parents, me learning that gentle music can be powerful,” Showalter said. “For someone from Northern Indiana, John Prine was my Willie Nelson. The patron saint of Midwestern ethos. I think about him every time I pick up a guitar.”
Showalter abandons the bombastic grandeur of his best rock anthems for the ballad, singing in a quiet, low register as a chorus of backup vocalists return each of his lyrics by singing, “The master calls back into the room” in a low hum. By the time he gets to the pre-chorus (“There’s a blue oasis”), Showalter has been reduced to a literal whisper, his voice trailing off during the word “oasis.”
In the refrain, Showalter plays off of several Prine songs — “When I Get to Heaven,” “Taking a Walk” — by imagining that the singer-songwriter is spending his time in the afterlife, embarking on leisurely strolls down the streets of the city he grew up in. It’s a moving image, transforming a song rooted in grief into an occasion for healing and hope.
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