In 2020, John Prine released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first new album of original material in thirteen years, at the same time as his final studio album. Its standout track, “Summer’s End,” helped the album become Prine’s highest-charting one on the Billboard 200 and an obvious choice for Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2018.
Of course, “Summer’s End” was as successful. It earned a Best American Roots Song nomination during the 2018 Grammy Awards and was named Best Song of 2018 by the American Songwriter magazine.
Prine Used The Song To Address the Opioid Crisis in the Country
Written by John Prine with singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, “Summer’s End” is a heartbreaking plea to a loved one to come home as the man in the song ponders on the passing of time.
“The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking. I still love that picture of us walking. Just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted. Summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” the song goes.
It is accompanied by a music video that went even deeper by portraying a heartbreaking story of a family ruined by the opioid crisis in the country, which Prine said at the time “is tearing American families apart.”
Prine enlisted the help of American documentary filmmakers Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, who were best known for their Academy Award-nominated documentary Heroin(e). Though the husband-and-wife tandem had no experience in creating a music video, they immediately signed on to the project.
The two West Virginians took the job the way they did for their documentary work, “which is using the resources we had in West Virginia – the people, the land, the houses – and tried to create a story out of that. We certainly tried to make a plan; we had a script, but in many of the scenes, the best moments were ones that were spontaneous,” McMillion Sheldon said.
In the short clip, you will see Prine playing the guitar as he watched a little girl raised by his grandfather after her mother’s death. Though the cause of her mother’s death was never clearly depicted in the video, it was hinted during a quick shot of television news reporting on the opioid crisis in the United States.
McMillion Sheldon got her grandfather to play the character in the music video while her mother discovered the young actress – the then five-year-old Emily Bignall – in a Sunday school class. They filmed the short clip in West Virginia, which in 2018 was reported to have the highest rate of deaths from opioid-involved overdose.
The couple has also revealed that it was actually Prine’s idea to tell the story of addiction from a child’s point of view. “One of the things that John Prine had mentioned to us early on was that he had just seen the Mr. Rogers documentary and was inspired by the idea of seeing life through a kid’s eyes, so that sort of sparked the idea of seeing what a kid goes through,” McMillion Sheldon said.
The music video of “Summer’s End” was dedicated to Max Barry, former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s son. Max died of an overdose in 2017, where Prine performed during his memorial service – the singer was longtime friends with the Barry family. Max was only twenty-two.
“I think for many John Prine fans, us included, the opioid crisis is in our backyard. John’s recognition of this issue means something to his fans,” McMillion Sheldon added.
You can watch the heartbreaking music video below.