It’s clear that “Paradise” is about nostalgia for a small-town home, and the environmental degradation that makes “going home again” an impossibility. But is it poetic invention or a historic retelling?
One of the first songs John Prine ever performed on stage, “Paradise” tells the story of the town of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, KY. The town was torn down in 1967 by the Tennessee Valley Authority due to concerns about the toxicity of the Paradise Fossil Plant (a coal burning electric utility).
So while the area was definitely impacted by energy companies, the historic details don’t match exactly with the songs lyrics.
The Peabody Coal Company is a real company, however, and is now known as Peabody Energy, trading on the New York Stock Exchange with the ticker BTU.
If you want a sense of what the area looks like, including the Green River and the abandoned old prison on Airdrie Hill, The John Prine Shrine has a photo essay that illustrate the lyrics:
The song has been covered by John Denver, John Fogerty, Dwight Yoakam and others. It’s worth listening to hear how different groups harmonize the the chorus.
My favorite is probably Jim and Jesse with an amazing keening high tenor harmony:
Here’s Johnny Cash:
There’s John Prine again, with Marty Stuart on mandolin and Vince Gill on guitar here, but I prefer 2010’s Bonnaroo concert, featuring a Prine encore where he’s joined by Kris Kristopherson.