John Prine, one of the most celebrated and influential songwriters in contemporary music, died April 7, 2020 at age 73 from complications of COVID-19, the coronavirus. Prine had been hospitalized since March 26 after suffering symptoms of COVID-19.
Coming up through the folk revival of the late 1960s, Prine became known for writing songs that spanned the gamut of the human condition as well as statements of social commentary. Born October 10, 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, Prine learned to play guitar at a young age. After a stint in the military, Prine moved to Chicago, a central location of the folk music revival in America. He worked as a mail carrier but began to get serious about music. Prine wrote songs and played several venues in the city, and found an admirer in Kris Kristofferson. Their friendship resulted in Prine’s first album in 1971, which Kristofferson produced.
That self-titled debut included the song “Sam Stone,” written about a drug-addicted military veteran who dies of an overdose. The song featured the memorable refrain, There’s a hole in daddy’s arm/ Where all the money goes, still a revered example of descriptive and effective lyricism. Another selection from the album, “Angel From Montgomery,” became a classic over the years. “Hello in There” reflected on aging and became one of his most popular numbers. Because of the depth of his material and ability for storytelling, some fans and media reviewers began putting Prine in a class with Bob Dylan and other writers of the era.
Follow-up albums like 1973’s Sweet Revenge further showcased the breadth of his songwriting, with such songs as “Dear Abby,” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and others. Prine found country chart success in 1975 with a song he penned with Steve Goodman, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” a satire of country music lyrics. David Allan Coe took the song to the No. 8 spot. Prine’s album Common Sense in 1975 was a minor commercial success, indicating that Prine’s stature was growing.
In the 1980s, Prine formed his own record label, Oh Boy Records. He continued to record through that decade and well into the 1990s. In 1991, Prine released The Missing Years, which received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. That marked his first teaming with Heartbreakers member Howie Epstein, who produced the album. The two also collaborated on the album Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, released in 1995.
By the middle of the 2000s, Prine began to undergo a serious career revival. His 2005 album Fair & Square won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. One song from the album, “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” took a political stance, aiming about seven minutes of vitriol at President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
In 2018, Prine released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of all-original material since Fair & Square. Produced by Dave Cobb, the album featured two songs co-written by Prine, Pat McLaughlin, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, “Caravan of Fools” and “Boundless Love.” Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile all made guest appearances on the record, which became Prine’s highest-charting record of his career. It also scored a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
Prine left behind songs that were at times serious, often humorous, and definitely soul-searching. Among his most well-known compositions were “Christmas in Prison,” “Lake Marie,” which dealt with a double homicide, the beautiful “Summer’s End,” the anti-war anthem “The Great Compromise,” “Magnolia Wind” and others. His gift for detailed storytelling gave his songs an extra touch of credibility and flavor.
Songwriters from genres across-the board list Prine as either an influence or a personal favorite. Bob Dylan was an early supporter of Prine, along with Kris Kristofferson. Ex-Pink Floyd member Roger Waters praised him as an eloquent writer and superb artist. Eric Church once listed Prine as one of his three favorite writers, alongside Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter Hayes Carll noted that Prine stood as a writer who “could say things in a way that hadn’t been said.” That truly sums up the genius of John Prine.