“So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
The lyrics from “Hello in There,” by John Prine, the Grammy-winning folk singer whose 50 years of plain-spoken songs transformed American roots music, are particularly poignant as the world mourns Prine’s death April 7 from coronavirus complications.
And they hold special memories for George Gruhn, a world-renowned guitar, banjo and mandolin dealer, author and historian whose family lived in west suburban River Forest most of his high school years.
Gruhn, who started collecting and trading guitars while a student at the University of Chicago, has counted Prine as a friend of 45 years and a regular guitar-store customer.
“He was great — down-to-earth and friendly,” said Gruhn, 74, the go-to guitar dealer for everyone from hobbyists to Prine, Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Marty Stuart, the late Roy Acuff, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and Hank Williams Jr. Prine had bought 10 instruments from Gruhn’s shop, Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee in the past year. He favored Martin acoustic guitars.
“There was something about John that was so sincere. He didn’t need a whole lot of words. He cut to the core in conversation and in his tunes,” said Gruhn, who has stood backstage at many of Prine’s concerts and who fell in love with original Appalachian string band music and early blues in the 1960s when he attended the University of Chicago.
“He [Prine] didn’t have to be overly wordy. He made words count,” Gruhn said.
Gruhn graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School and earned a U-Chicago bachelor’s of science degree in ethology, focused on instinctive animal behavioral studies. It was at the University of Chicago that Gruhn started wheeling and dealing in guitars, banjos and mandolins at Hyde Park pawn shops, music shops and in newspaper classified advertisements.
Gruhn’s father, first a pathologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital, became the first pathologist and laboratory director at what was then the new Skokie Valley Hospital.
Gruhn found something magical about Prine.
“It was uplifting to be with him,” Gruhn said, noting that Prine had persevered through treatments for squamous cell cancer in his neck that required major surgery, as well as treatment for lung cancer in 2013. Prine had to have a large piece of his neck removed, leaving his head cocked.
He never let those setbacks stop him.
“He had a very positive attitude,” Gruhn said. “He didn’t tell anyone how sorry he was about his health. He was thankful to be alive, hanging out with his friends and writing tunes.”
Gruhn said Prine’s plainspoken ways — like his plainspoken verses — belied his brilliance and profound importance as a writer, a poet and a composer whose songs were performed by hundreds of people in widely divergent accompaniments.
“In the store, he liked an acoustic guitar with great tone and volume. He listened for tone, volume and projection. He had a good ear. He knew what he wanted,” said Gruhn, who sold Prine three guitars just three days before Prine’s New Year’s Eve 2019 midnight concert at the Opry House, the sixth home to the Grand Ole Opry.
Prine played two of those guitars on stage: a Martin D-28 herringbone trim in excellent original condition and a Martin D-35 that recently had been customized with an ultra-fancy Tree of Life inlay and edge trim. “That New Year’s Eve concert was a memorable show. He just exuded soul and personality,” Gruhn said.
“John was a better musician, in my opinion, than [Bob] Dylan. As a poet, he was on par,” Gruhn said. “He was a brilliant man. If you study his background, he became his own promoter and distributor. He lived his life in a way that satisfied him and those around him.”
And what better definition of success could one want?