Americana music lost one of its greatest artists Tuesday when singer-songwriter John Prine died at the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 73.
His family confirmed he died from complications from Covid-19. He had been in critical care for several days.
Prine was regarded as a songwriter’s songwriter and his imaginative, sometimes whimsical, observations of American life in song earned him legendary status in the music industry worldwide.
He won two Grammy Awards - in 1992 for The Missing Years and and in 2006 for Fair and Square. In all, he received 11 nominations, including three in 2019 for his final album, the critically-acclaimed The Tree of Forgiveness. Earlier this year, he was one of the recipients of the Recording Academy’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Awards. In 2019 he had been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Prine was born on October 10, 1946 in the working-class Chicago suburb of Maywood. His parents William and Verna had moved to Illinois from the coal fields of Western Kentucky. He was the third of four boys.
He was taught to play guitar by his older brother Dave and by the age 14 had already written songs, two of which were to appear in a later album. After leaving school, he worked in the U.S. Postal Service before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966. He served in Germany for a period and on discharge returned to delivering mail.
But by now music was his passion and he made his public debut at an open mic night at a local Chicago club called the Fifth Peg in 1970. He had made friends with another aspiring singer-songwriter called Steve Goodman, who later found fame as the writer of the hit “City of New Orleans.” Within months, Goodman had introduced Prine to Kris Kristofferson who in turn recommended him to Jerry Wexler, the boss of Atlantic Records.
A record deal soon followed and 1971 saw the release of his self-titled debut album. It was the makings of a legend. John Prine is long regarded as one of the finest debut recordings by an American popular artist and would be included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In the album’s liner notes, Kristofferson wrote: "Twenty four years old and he writes like he's two-hundred and twenty.""
Other great artists of the same generation would agree. At least five of the tracks would become genre classics – “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Angel from Montgomery” - and be recorded by countless artists including Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Steve Goodman, Bette Midler and Dwight Yoakim.
“Sam Stone” was the story of a drug-addicted war veteran and contained one of the great refrains in modern music: There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.
He would record three more albums with Atlantic and in these Prine would continue to deliver songs – like “The Great Compromise” – which would expose the underbelly of American anti-war sentiment at the time.
His relationship with Atlantic ended somewhat abruptly in 1976 and he didn’t make another album for three years before releasing Bruised Orange, produced by Steve Goodman, with the Elektra/Asylum label. There would be two other albums from this relationship before Prine decided to end his somewhat strained dealings with the big companies and start his own independent label.
Oh Boy Records was launched in 1984 with the release of Aimless Love and of the 18 studio albums of his career, his own company would produce 11 of them, including the two Grammy winners and the much-nominated final release The Tree of Forgiveness. There would also be a number of compilation and live albums, as well as two popular releases – In Spite of Ourselves and For Better, or Worse – which saw Prine duet with some of the great female vocalists in the business, including Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Rosanne Cash.
In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck. He underwent major surgery followed by radiation therapy. But within a year he was back in the recording studio, though the operation had left him with a distinctively raspy voice. Then in 2013 he had surgery to remove cancer on his left lung.
Within six months he was back on the road, where he loved to be. In fact he suffered another medical setback while touring overseas earlier this year. A nagging hip complaint forced him to return to Nashville, where he underwent hip replacement surgery in late February. And it was on March 20 that his family announced he was suffering from the coronavirus.
One of the first tributes after news of his death, came from Bruce Springsteen. His posting on twitter summed up best what most fellow artists are feeling:
“Over here on E Street, we are crushed by the loss of John Prine. John and I were the ‘New Dylans’ together in the early ‘70’s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages. We send our love and prayers to his family.”
Prine is survived by his third wife Fiona Whelan Prine, his manager in recent years; three sons, Jody, Jack and Tommy; two brothers, Dave and Billy; and three grandchildren.
(See full Crossroads obituary: Sadness Leaks From Tear-Stained Cheeks)