Singer-songwriter John Prine has died at age 73

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John Prine on 'Austin City Limits' on PBS
John Prine performing on 'Austin City Limits' on PBS, October 13, 2018. (courtesy KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photo by Scott Newton)

Singer-songwriter John Prine died Tuesday from complications related to COVID-19. On March 20, Prine's wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, tested positive for COVID-19; John Prine was also tested at that time, but with an ambiguous result. He eventually presented with the virus and had been hospitalized at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville for several days.

In a career that has spanned five decades, John Prine has given us a treasure trove of songs — some that make you laugh, others that make you cry, all that make you think. Prine is widely regarded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, a favorite of peers like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the latter of whom said in 2009, "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree." Prine also inspired, influenced and encouraged artists like Bonnie Raitt, Iris DeMent, Jason Isbell and Margo Price.

In the time since John Prine has been hospitalized, many have taken to social media to reshare the fact that it was the late Roger Ebert who first wrote about Prine. But the significance goes far beyond the answer to a trivia question or the perceived novelty that a film critic would write about music. As Whet Moser pointed out in Chicago magazine in 2012, it was fitting that one of finest writers to come out of Chicago was the person to break one of Chicago's best singer-songwriters. Beyond that, it's significant that Prine — a working man who wrote songs about everyday people — emerged not from bustling New York or star-studded Los Angeles, but from nose-to-the-grindstone Chicago, Carl Sandburg's "Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler," images that could just as easily have come out of a Prine song.

Prine was born in Maywood, Ill., a near-west suburb of Chicago, in 1946. After serving in the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s, Prine returned to Chicago and found work as a mail carrier in the village of Westchester, another west-side suburb. Prine was writing songs as a hobby, but eventually started playing open mic nights; soon Prine was filling the city's small folk venues and being booked for back-to-back nights. That's where, Ebert recalled, "out of sheer blind luck," he discovered Prine. In October 1970, Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, "country-folk singers aren't exactly putting rock out of business. But Prine is good."

As Ebert put it in that early review, "Prine's lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words." For example, "Angel From Montgomery" sketches a woman who's bored in her life and marriage; "Spanish Pipe Dream" paints the picture of a happy relationship based on the couple's common ideals; "Sam Stone" depicts a wounded war veteran who self-medicates with morphine, echoing the work of another Chicago writer, Nelson Algren (The Man with the Golden Arm). "I came up with the chorus first and decided I really liked the part about the 'hole in daddy's arm'," Prine said about the song. "I had this picture in my mind of a little girl, like Little Orphan Annie, shaking her head back and forth while a rainbow of money goes into her dad's arm."

Prine had already written many of these songs by the time Ebert's review boosted Prine's career. Prine also got the attention of Kris Kristofferson, who helped Prine get signed to Atlantic Records, which released Prine's self-titled 1971 debut album. Kristofferson remained a longtime friend and supporter of Prine's work and career. Prine also befriended fellow Chicagoan Steve Goodman, and the two were great friends and collaborators up until Goodman's death from leukemia in 1984. Goodman's songs remained part of Prine's live shows throughout Prine's career.

Although a Chicago son, Prine's voice — long before he relocated to Nashville — betrayed a lilting Southern accent, and that was no put-on. Prine's parents migrated north from Kentucky's coal country, but returned to the family's Appalachian hometown every summer, trips that filled young John Prine with innumerable happy memories. That Kentucky town, which was eventually bulldozed for strip-mining operations, was called Paradise, a place immortalized in Prine's idyllic song of the same name.

In 1981, Prine and two associates founded Oh Boy Records in Nashville, a label that releases Prine's work as well as that of his friends and proteges, including Kristofferson, singer-songwriter Todd Snider, and the label's most recent signee, Kelsey Waldon.

Since the 1990s, Prine made a name for himself as a mentor and advocate of other like-minded Americana singer-songwriters. He's championed the work of artists like Snider and Waldon, and also Bonnie Raitt, Iris DeMent, Kathy Mattea, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Shovels & Rope, Justin Townes Earle and Margo Price. Many of these artists have toured with Prine, who himself has continued to put out meaningful work. Prine's most recent album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in April 2018 and it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Americana/Folk Albums chart.

Throughout his career, Prine has brought his Midwestern-honed work ethic to the job. "John is very routine- and habit-oriented," Prine's guitar player Jason Wilbert told The Bitter Southerner in 2016. "He likes to eat dinner right after the show. We do soundcheck at the same time every day, and we leave the hotel at the same time, and we play our show in thirds. …. He likes to go get a newspaper every day and read it. He likes to get the weekend edition of The New York Times and the Friday Wall Street Journal. He likes to read Archie comics."

"John takes his Saturday nights seriously," Shires corroborated. "He has his routines, and they're cool."

Never one to take himself too seriously, Prine downplays his work. "I look busy for a living," Prine said to Rolling Stone in 2017. "I leave the house so it appears I did something. Fiona knows to never ask me what I did today. She knows it's absolutely nothing."

Prine has enjoyed longtime popularity and a dedicated fanbase in Minnesota; perhaps it's his Midwestern sensibility, his homespun wisdom and his workaday characters, not to mention a song like "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone" (from 1978's Bruised Orange). "He is a songwriter's songwriter," says Radio Heartland program director Mike Pengra. "He has that rare ability to write songs that made other songwriters think, 'why didn't I think of that?' I can think of Prine tunes that make me laugh, and in the same thought, songs that make me cry. He could come home straight. He could come home curly."

Over the past couple decades, Prine has faced a number of health issues. In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his neck, and underwent a successful surgery to remove it. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, and again had the cancer surgically removed. Following the lung cancer surgery, Prine's physical therapist designed a post-operative recovery workout specifically designed for Prine: he was to run up and down the stairs in his house, then pick up his guitar and sing two songs while still out of breath. This workout helped to restore Prine's stamina, and he returned to touring six months after the successful operation. In 2019, Prine had a stent surgically inserted to lower his risk of stroke, a procedure that caused Prine to postpone some shows, but still saw him take the stage with his friend Raitt at the 2019 Americana Honors and Awards show in Nashville.

The Current's Bill DeVille, host of United States of Americana, was at that show. "John Prine has always felt like a friend," DeVille says. "The fun uncle you always wanted to spend more time with. This guy could make you laugh and cry in the same song. Even Dylan was a huge admirer. JP leaves an untouchable body of work. There will never be another quite like him. I will miss him."

"John just makes you happy," DeMent told The Bitter Southerner in 2016. "He makes people feel good. There are a lot of people who have accomplished a lot in life who people put on pedestals, and they walk around in that safe, little, pedastal-ed zone. John's not like that. When you're walking around with John, he puts you on a pedestal. And it's a sincere thing. And I'll get choked up saying that because it's just true. Because he's just got a loving heart."

Tune in


Tune in April 8 to The Current to hear John Prine's music every hour throughout the day. Radio Heartland will air a four-hour special celebrating and honoring John Prine, from noon to 4 p.m. CDT. On Sunday, April 12, Bill DeVille will devote the United States of Americana to Prine's music from 8 to 10 a.m. Central.

Artist Reactions

Correction


April 8, 9:50 a.m. CDT: An earlier version of this story reported that Prine had died on Monday, April 6. That has been corrected to Tuesday, April 7.

External Link

John Prine - official site

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2 Photos

  • Photo from the 2019 Americana Music Association Honors and Awards
    Bonnie Raitt and John Prine after performing onstage together during the 2019 Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 11, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
  • Americana Music Association 2018 Honors and Awards
    John Prine accepts an award onstage during the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 12, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images)