John Prine, One of America’s Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73 ~ RollingStone

Hand me down my walking’ cane
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Send my mouth way down south
And kiss my ass goodbyeJohn Prine

Grammy-winning singer who combined literary genius with a common touch succumbs to coronavirus complications
john prine obit

John Prine, the Grammy-winning singer who combined literary genius with a common touch, has died at 73 from coronavirus complications  Charlie Gillett Collection/Getty Images

John Prine, who for five decades wrote rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music, died Tuesday at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 73. The cause was complications related to COVID-19, his family confirmed to Rolling Stone.

Prine, who left behind an extraordinary body of folk-country classics, was hospitalized last month after the sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, and was placed in intensive care for 13 days. Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona, announced on March 17th that she had tested positive for the virus after they had returned from a European tour.

As a songwriter, Prine was admired by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and others, known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences  — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience. There’s “Hello in There,” about the devastating loneliness of an elderly couple; “Sam Stone,” a portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam soldier suffering from PTSD; and “Paradise,” an ode to his parents’ strip-mined hometown of Paradise, Kentucky, which became an environmental anthem. Prine tackled these subjects with empathy and humor, with an eye for “the in-between spaces,” the moments people don’t talk about, he told Rolling Stone in 2017.  “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan said in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”

Though he was an underground singer-songwriter for most of his career, Prine had a remarkable final act. In 2018, he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of original material in 13 years. The album went to Number Five on the Billboard 200, the highest debut of his career, and he played some of his biggest shows ever, including a sold-out tour kickoff at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The album was released on Oh Boy Records, the independent label Prine started with his longtime manager, business partner, and friend Al Bunetta. In recent years, Prine, his wife, and son Jody ran the label out of a small Nashville home office.

Prine’s string of acclaimed solo albums began with his self-titled 1971 debut on Atlantic Records, featuring a tracklist that reads like a greatest-hits compilation: “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and “Angel From Montgomery” among them. Throughout his career, Prine explored a wide variety of musical styles, from hard country to rockabilly to bluegrass; he liked to say that he tried to live in a space somewhere between his heroes Johnny Cash and Dylan.

Prine was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois. His father was a tool and die maker and the president of the local steelworkers union, and raised John and his three brothers on the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and other heroes of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Though he was a poor student, Prine was a natural songwriter; two songs he wrote when he was 14, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan,” ended up on his LP Diamonds in the Rough, more than 10 years later. Prine had a restless imagination — “I would go to class and just stare at something like a button on the teacher’s shirt,” he said — but he excelled at hobbies he focused on, like gymnastics, which he was inspired to take up by his older brother, Doug. “Here was something I had no natural ability in, and I could do it well,” Prine said.

After graduating high school in 1964, Prine took the advice of his oldest brother, Dave, and became a mailman. Wandering around the Chicago suburbs, Prine wrote many of his classic early songs. During his postman years, he wrote “Donald and Lydia,” about a couple who “make love from 10 miles away,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a humorous indictment of misguided patriotism, after he noticed that locals were posting American flag decals that were included in an issue of Reader’s Digest around the neighborhood.

Prine was forced to take a hiatus from his postal career when he was drafted into the Army in late 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. But instead of being sent to Vietnam, Prine lucked out and was sent to Stuttgart, West Germany, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. Prine played down his military service, describing his contribution as “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks,” as he told Rolling Stone. But the experience did bring him to write maybe his greatest song: “Sam Stone.” The ballad is about a soldier who comes home from the war mentally shattered, turning to morphine to ease the pain. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” Prine sings in the chorus, “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”

“I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018. “And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’ ” When Johnny Cash covered the song, he rewrote the chorus, changing “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” (“If it hadn’t have been Johnny Cash,” Prine said, “I would’ve said, ‘Are you nuts?’”)

Prine became an immediate sensation on the Chicago folk scene. On the day before his 24th birthday, he was performing at Chicago’s Fifth Peg when the now-iconic Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert walked in. Ebert’s headline, ‘Singing Mailman Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words,’ led to sold-out rooms. Soon, Prine’s friend and musical partner Steve Goodman convinced Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka to drop by to see Prine play at the Earl of Old Town in the summer of 1971.

“It was too damned late, and we had an early wake-up ahead of us, and by the time we got there, Old Town was nothing but empty streets and dark windows,” Kristofferson later wrote in the liner notes for Prine’s first album. “And the club was closing. But the owner let us come in, pulled some chairs off a couple of tables, and John unpacked his guitar and got back up to sing. … By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.”


“He was incredibly endearing and witty,” Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2016. She met Prine in the early Seventies and first covered “Angel From Montgomery” in 1974. “The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.”

While Prine may have been signed to Atlantic Records, he did not conform to pop music’s rules. His follow-up to his self-titled album, 1972’s Diamonds in the Rough, was a stripped-down acoustic album that paid homage to his Appalachian bluegrass roots, which he recorded with his brother Dave for around “$7,200 including beer.” Prine likened the major-label system to a bank “for high-finance loans. You could go to a bank and do the same thing for less money and put a loan behind your career instead of a major label throwing parties for you and charging you, and giving you the ticket and not asking what you want to eat.”

Feeling that the label could have done more to promote the hard-edged 1975 album Common Sense, he asked co-founder Ahmet Ertegun to let him out of his contract. Ertegun agreed, and Prine moved to David Geffen’s smaller Asylum label for 1978’s excellent Bruised Orange, which was produced by Goodman, with classics like “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” (later covered by Miranda Lambert) and the heartbreaking “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” a meditation on loneliness from the point of view of 1930s film star Sabu Dastagir. “When I wrote that one and ‘Jesus the Missing Years,’ ” Prine recently told Rolling Stone, “I was afraid to sing them for somebody else. I thought they were going to look at me and say, ‘You’ve done it. You’ve crossed the line. You need the straitjacket.’ But if I let it sit for a couple weeks and it still affects me, it’s something I would like to hear somebody say, then I figure, my instinct is as good as a normal person. I would like to hear that somebody do that, so I just go ahead and jump into it.”

Prine’s offbeat odyssey continued with Pink Cadillac, a rockabilly album he made with Sam Phillips and Phillips’ sons Jerry and Knox. By 1982, Prine decided to follow the path of his friend Goodman and start his own label, Oh Boy Records, with Bunetta. Following a Christmas single, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”/”Silver Bells,” Prine’s first LP release was 1984’s Aimless Love. The business model, with fans sending in checks by mail, was a success, and early proof that singer-songwriters could survive without the support of a major label. “He created the job I have,” said songwriter Todd Snider, who released his early albums on Oh Boy. “Especially when he went to his own label, and started doing it with his own family and team. Before him, there was nothing for someone like Jason Isbell to aspire to, besides maybe Springsteen.”

In 1989, Sony offered to buy Oh Boy, an offer Prine turned down. Two years later, he scored one of the biggest successes of his career with 1991’s The Missing Years. Produced by Howie Epstein of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, it featured guest appearances by Petty, Springsteen, and Raitt. The title track, “Jesus the Missing Years” is one of Prine’s most ambitious songs, attempting to fill in the 18-year gap (from age 12 to 29) in Jesus Christ’s life unaccounted for in the Bible. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

In 1988, Prine was in Ireland when he met Fiona Whelan, a Dublin recording-studio business manager. She soon moved to Nashville and they married in April 1996. By then, she had given birth to their two sons, Jack and Tommy. “It brought me right down to earth,” Prine said. “I was a dreamer. I learned real fast I don’t know anything except songwriting.” Prine also adopted Jody Whelan, Fiona’s son from a previous relationship. Jody and Fiona would eventually become Prine’s co-managers, overseeing the most commercially successful moment in his career.

This idyllic chapter of Prine’s life was complicated in 1997 when, during the sessions for In Spite of Ourselves — a successful duets album with women, including Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless — Prine discovered a cancerous growth on his neck. It was stage 4 cancer. “I felt fine,” Prine said later. “It doesn’t hit you until you pull up to the hospital and you see ‘cancer’ in big letters, and you’re the patient. Then it all kind of comes home.”

In January 1998, doctors removed a small tumor, taking a portion of the singer’s neck with it, altering his physical appearance. Prine thought he might never sing again. However, after a year and a half, he returned to performing, with a small show in Bristol, Tennessee. “The crowd was with me. Boy, were they with me,” he said. “And I think I shook everybody’s hand afterward. I knew right then and there that I could do it.”

The next decade brought Prine another Grammy for 2005’s Fair & Square. That year, Prine joined Ted Kooser, 13th Poet Laureate of the United States, becoming the first artist to read and play at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Prine saw his already formidable influence reach another generation of artists, including Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Kacey Musgraves.

In 2013, Prine was again sidelined briefly, diagnosed with a spot on his left lung. Six months after the cancer was removed, he was back on the road. Following Buntta’s 2015 death, Prine became sole owner and president of Oh Boy Records, which has also been home to recordings by Snider, Dan Reeder, R.B. Morris, and Heather Eatman, among others.

His last studio album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in April 2018, just six months after he was named the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year. Rolling Stone said the album had “all the qualities that have defined him as one of America’s greatest songwriters.”

Prine attended the Grammys in January, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. The singer could be seen on television with his family, grinning and wearing sunglasses, as Bonnie Raitt sang “Angel From Montgomery.” Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Onstage, he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”


John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73 ~ NYT

The folk singer and songwriter with a raspy voice and an offbeat humor was revered by peers including Bob Dylan.

Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

John Prine, the raspy-voiced country-folk singer whose ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favorite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others, died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He was 73.

The cause was complications from Covid-19, his family said.

Mr. Prine underwent cancer surgery in 1998 to remove a tumor in his neck identified as squamous cell cancer, which had damaged his vocal cords. In 2013, he had part of one lung removed to treat lung cancer.

Mr. Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when Mr. Kristofferson heard him play one night at a small Chicago club called the Fifth Peg, dragged there by the singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. Mr. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. At the Fifth Peg, Mr. Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Mr. Kristofferson later wrote, “was unlike anything I’d heard before.”


Singer-Songwriter John Prine Dies At 73

John Prine, one of America’s most revered singer-songwriters, has died after being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. Prine wrote beloved songs like “Hello In There” and “Angel From Montgomery.”



John Prine’s Songs Saw The Whole Of Us ~ NPR

John Prine in Atlanta in 1975.

Tom Hill/Getty Images



When I heard that John Prine was dead, and would never be going to Arnold’s Country Kitchen again to nab the last piece of banana cream pie; and that I’d never stand in a packed room full of old hippies and young hipsters and just plain folks and bellow out the words to “In Spite of Ourselves” as he chuckled at all of us; that I’d never meet another young songwriter who’d recently been blessed the wisdom he offered as Nashville’s most generous mentor; that old friends like Bonnie Raitt would never grinningly match his pothole-filled vocals in a perfect duet; that all over the world people are pouring out Handsome Johnnys (diet ginger ale and vodka, preferably Smirnoff) and mourning the loss of the singer-songwriter they all felt was a friend — at first I said, no. This cannot be.

My hometown of Nashville can’t continue to exist without him in the corner of nearly every musical frame, from the mural adorned with his scrunchy face and the words STAY INDEPENDENT on the side wall of Grimey’s record shop to the stages and studios where artists like Miranda Lambert and Jason Isbell have tried to live up to his example. Storytelling itself, at least the kind involving guitars, feels a bit endangered without Prine’s gimlet eye guiding it. He hadn’t been well, off and on, for many years, but he also seemed oddly indestructible. Everyone’s love and need for his presence wove protection around him.

But we are living in a time when no concept of protection seems adequate. Acknowledging that, I turned to Prine’s music. This is how we honor our losses as music fans: by holding close the recordings that keep a voice resonant past mortality. Leafing through the pile of some of the best-named albums in history — Bruised Orange, German Afternoons, Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, The Singing Mailman Delivers — I stopped at the familiar favorites, the trenchant views into regular lives like the addict’s elegy “Sam Stone” and the lonely elder’s lament “Hello In There,” and thought about how they’d choked me up so often. I considered the gospel prayer of “Angel From Montgomery” and the patriarch’s poem “Summer’s End.” But it turned out I didn’t want to hear any of those, not right away. I wanted to hear “Sweet Revenge.”

“Sweet Revenge” is, on the surface, pretty ridiculous. It’s the title track from Prine’s third album, the one with the cover portrait of him with his feet on the upholstery in a convertible he bought with the money from his first two. The song’s a rocking account of newfound success that immediately detours toward hilarity. It conveys cockeyed optimism with a smear of darkness dirtying the frame. “I got kicked off Noah’s ark,” Prine sings like some shaggy Don Quixote. “There were two of everything but one of me.” The wisecracks keep coming as the band choogles behind him and Cissy Houston adds some gospel harmonies. The narrator cozies up to an English teacher on a plane who doesn’t like his jokes about red balloons, hears his own songs on the radio, and keeps things weird. “The white meat is on the run and the dark meat is far too done,” Prine croaks, whatever that means. It doesn’t matter. What it means is that life makes no obvious sense, but people can make stories from the random-seeming joy and pain it offers, and share them with each other, and do a lot more than muddle through.

Prine’s songs claimed sweet revenge by making room for the wide range of emotions that careen through people as they stumble and dance through life. Those beloved ballads, weepers that showed his affinity for classic country tropes, included lines that made the mixed-up humanity of their subjects perfectly clear. The poeticism in “Angel From Montgomery” gains power because the lonely wife narrating is also so relatably peevish: she longs for divine intervention, but when she complains of her husband, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have nothing to say,” she’s as headachy and unable to rise above things as anyone. Even “Sam Stone,” to many a perfect story song with the arc of a Greek tragedy, revolves around an image that’s almost sweet in its childlike fancifulness: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” And then comes the anti-prayer, recognizable to anyone who’s felt hope cut to the bone: “And Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.” I suppose. John Prine captured people in those moments of supposing when life gets really small and almost impossible, but then another thought occurs. A laugh, or a dignified response, or even a sense of blessing.

No song captures Prine’s unpretentious magnanimity better, as I hear it, than his 1995 epic “Lake Marie.” It’s a hymn that’s also a tale as tall as they come. A palimpsest of tales, in fact, from Native American myth to true crime (its bucolic setting causes Prine’s narrator to recall several unsolved murders he heard about as a youth) to an intimate account of a spiraling romance. One layer of the song laps across the surface of another like the waters of its titular Wisconsin lake – a scrawny lake, in pure Prine fashion, beautiful mostly because that’s how a couple on the verge of disaster saw it one memorable day. As the stories wash ashore and get tangled in each other, the song’s key line — “We were standing by peaceful waters” — reveals itself as both a bitter irony and the narrator’s route to redemption. “All the love we shared between her and me was slammed, slammed up against the banks of Old Lake Marie,” Prine moans, a man making poetry of the worst situation, because that’s what you do to survive it.

Prine maintained hope in the power of imagination throughout his songwriting career, right up to the songs on Tree of Forgiveness, his 18th and final studio album. He still spoke in the voice of the regular Joe and Jane, and he continued to dream, irreverently. He lamented our time as, possibly, an end time, but he still believed in the solace of looking within. The album’s highlight is a classic Prine shaggy-dog story, “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” and it’s an ideal send-off for our most grounded dreamer. “The lonesome friends of science say, ‘The world will end most any day,'” Prine intones in a voice bent out of shape by time and hardship, but still somehow luminous.

Well, if it does, then that’s okay
‘Cause I don’t live here anyway
I live down deep inside my head
long ago I made my bed
I get my mail in Tennessee
My wife, my dog, and my family

John Prine no longer gets his mail in Tennessee, and that’s a loss that will continue to hurt. But he gave us the gift of his head, and his heart, and we can all still visit there, as long as we have our own, and rejuvenate.


John Prine’s 15 Essential Songs ~ NYT

He showed how much humor you could put in a song and still be taken seriously. The singer and songwriter died of complications of Covid-19 at 73.

Credit…Kyle Dean Reinford for The New York Times


John Prine was an Army veteran walking a U.S. Postal Service beat in Chicago and writing songs on the side when Kris Kristofferson heard him and helped spread the word about Prine’s gifts. Pretty soon, he resigned as a letter carrier; his supervisor snickered, “You’ll be back.” Nearly 50 years later, this January, he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy for his contributions to songwriting. The singing mailman almost always had the last laugh.

Prine, who died on Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus, was legitimately unique. He took familiar blues themes — my baby left me — but filled them with whimsy and kindness. He liked a saucy lyric, and wrote movingly, in character, of the quiet lives and loneliness of humdrum people. He seemed like a Zen sage and offered an uncynical live-and-let-live morality in his songs, writing in a colloquial voice that revealed a love of the way Americans speak. He showed how much humor you could put in a song and still be taken seriously. He had less in common with any other songwriter than he did with Mark Twain.

He grew up in Maywood, a western suburb of Chicago, and was reared by working-class parents from Kentucky, where he often spent summers with relatives and fell in love with country music and bluegrass. By 13, he was performing in rural jamborees. When he debuted in 1971, in his mid-20s, he sounded like an old man already, so years later, when he got old and went through two cancer treatments, he still sounded like himself. From his first to his last, he wrote songs that were tender, hilarious, and wise, without grandstanding any of these traits. Here are 15 of the best.

John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73
A singer and songwriter with a raspy voice and a gift for offbeat humor, he was revered by his peers, including Bob Dylan. He died of the coronavirus.

“Angel From Montgomery,” his best-known song, begins with a little declarative startle: “I am an old woman, named after my mother.” It’s an incisive and terrifying look at the dissatisfactions of a bad marriage and a woman’s sense of being economically trapped in her misery. Bonnie Raitt recorded it three years later and uncovered some of the song’s dormant melodies.

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