In Search of John Prine's "Paradise"

In Search of John Prine's
Words by Alli Patton
Photos by Barry Duvall

With the hollow click of a button and the shifty movement of cold mechanics, a needle pricks a thin waxy moon. From the crackle of the grooved vinyl comes muffled strums and a faraway croon. From a time-tinted jukebox comes the sounds of “Paradise.”

When I was a child my family would travel / Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born / And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered / So many times that my memories are worn …

“Paradise” was written by the celebrated country-folk songsmith John Prine. The tune first appeared on his self-titled debut album in 1971, long before his name would be recognized among the greats and years after the real Paradise would cease to exist. 

Paradise was a small community in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and, as the song’s lyrics detail, home to Prine’s parents. They would move to suburban Chicago before Prine was born, but when he was a young boy, the family would visit often. The song would be inspired by these childhood trips, the beginning of the tune a warm and sunny tribute to a home away from home.

And Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County? / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay …

But if you go in search of Paradise today, following the song’s lyrics along the Green River, you won’t find the quaint little town—or much of anything for that matter. The air doesn’t smell like snakes. There are no remnants of pop bottle shoot-outs. There is little more than the imposing stacks and billowing steam of a combined cycle plant that operates there now, the few memories of this place told by sturdy strings and a disciplined bow. 

Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking / Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away…

Paradise was established on the banks of the Green River, where it had a life as a trading post early on. However, coal would become the town’s biggest resource and mining its most prosperous industry. According to a 1992 report by the Kentucky New Era, mining in the area dates back to the 1820s, but it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that coal companies discovered how shallow, and therefore, accessible, the coal seams were.

Because coal was close to the surface of the earth, this led to the land being strip-mined on a large scale. The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, would soon set up a coal-fired power plant adjacent to the town of Paradise to better reap the resource. This exciting and promising moment for the community of a few hundred strong would ultimately usher in its downfall and the death of Paradise.

Having lived in a coal mining town for decades, the people of Paradise were accustomed to the noise and the soot from the mines, explains C. Josh Givens, a retired journalist and Board Secretary of John Prine Memorial Park at Rochester Dam. They were, however, unprepared for the around-the-clock clamor and constant fly ash that the new power plant produced. Under these only worsening conditions, the townspeople began to leave one by one; and as they did, the TVA continued to expand the plant, buying up and razing Paradise plot by plot. By late 1967, the final occupants of the town were gone.

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel / And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land / Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken / Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man …

In 2017, the TVA would establish a combined cycle plant fueled by natural gas, effectively closing the fossil plant that polluted the land and wiped out a town by 2020. Today, the combined cycle plant stands, a large sign reading “TVA Paradise,” the only indication this was a once promised land.

In the 50 years since the release of “Paradise,” the song has become—and perhaps it always was—so much more than just a testament to the singer-songwriter’s early craft. The lyrics contain a map to Prine’s well-loved memories, a history lesson of a region too often exploited, and the instructions for a legend’s fated farewell. 

When Prine passed away from complications caused by coronavirus in 2020, his final wish was fulfilled. Just as he asked in the song’s parting lines, his ashes were scattered along the Green River, his soul free to roll on up to the Rochester Dam, where the John Prine Memorial Park sits now.

I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin' / Just five miles away from wherever I am …

If you go looking for John Prine’s Paradise and decide to follow the Green River to the Rochester Dam, you just might miss the real thing. You’ll instead find Paradise in the Muhlenberg County Music Museum, where a Prine record or two waits patiently in a jukebox; or standing in Central City’s festival square, where a statue of the artist will soon be erected; or simply sitting on a bench in John Prine Memorial Park. 

With a gentle melody and a few earnest words, the singer-songwriter immortalized a community, a county, a region. And in return, Muhlenberg County has kept Prine’s legacy alive today, making sure Paradise is all around.