John Prine, a 2019 inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a cornerstone of the Nashville independent music community, died Tuesday (April 7) from complications of COVID-19. He was 73.
Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, of parents who were natives of Paradise, Kentucky. That coal town would provide Prine the title and subject matter of one of his most recorded songs. Among the throng of artists who found this story of a small town’s destruction from strip mining spellbinding were Lynn Anderson, Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers, Tom T. Hall and Dwight Yoakam.
Other artists who have cut his songs include Zac Brown Band, Kim Carnes, David Allan Coe, Nanci Griffith, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, George Strait, Don Williams, and Tammy Wynette.
Prine was working as a mail carrier when he began writing songs and performing in folk clubs around Chicago in the late 1960s. His gritty voice and even grittier subject matter — old age, drug addiction, environmental carnage — basically assured that he would never become a chart climber on his own. But over the years he cultivated a huge following of rabid fans for his personal appearances, and his keen insights and quirky sense of humor immediately found favor with more commercial artists in pop, country and bluegrass.
In 1970 Roger Ebert, the future film critic who was still a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote a glowing review of a Prine set at the Fifth Peg, elevating the unknown, 25-year-old songwriter’s reputation in the city’s music scene.
Ebert wrote, “He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Kris Kristofferson became an instant Prine convert after seeing him perform at Chicago’s Earl of Old Town folk club, and was instrumental in making the connections that led to him signing with Atlantic Records in 1971. Kristofferson also wrote the effusive liner notes for Prine’s first album. In addition to “Paradise,” that self-titled collection of original songs also included the soon-to-be standards “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery.”
Prine did not take a writing credit on his most recognizable composition, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” because he didn’t want to offend the country music community. Instead, his co-writer Steve Goodman is listed as the sole writer on that “perfect country and western song,” as singer David Allan Coe refers to it in his 1975 recording. Goodman, however, did give a jukebox to Prine as a thank-you gift, and the song remains a honky-tonk staple to this day.
Between 1971 and 1975, Prine recorded three more albums for Atlantic, after which he moved to Asylum Records for an additional three. Then, in 1984, he and his partner, Al Bunetta, along with partner Dan Einstein, formed Oh Boy Records.
It was always as a songwriter that Prine infused his visions into American music. Bonnie Raitt claimed the definitive version of “Angel From Montgomery.” George Strait scored a No. 1 with “I Just Want to Dance With You.” Norah Jones and Miranda Lambert both covered “That’s the Way the World Goes ’Round.”
Tammy Wynette was pure heartache with “Unwed Fathers.” Kim Carnes gave a pulsating reading of “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” while Nanci Griffith featured it on her 1993 album, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Don Williams showed Prine’s casual, easygoing side with 1983’s “Love Is on a Roll.” Bette Midler and Joan Baez each peered into the darkness of old age with “Hello in There.”
In 2003, Prine was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was a four-time Grammy winner — two for best contemporary folk album (1991’s The Missing Years and 2005’s Fair and Square), plus a lifetime achievement and a Grammy Hall of Fame award.
In 2019, his Tree of Forgiveness won the Americana Music Award for album of the year, and he was presented the AMA’s lifetime achievement prize for songwriting in 2003.
In 2007, Prine teamed up with bluegrass great Mac Wiseman for the album Standard Songs for Average People, which netted them a nomination from the International Bluegrass Music Association for recorded event of the year.
Prine twice triumphed over the ravages of cancer to return to performing. He canceled dates earlier this year to recover from hip surgery.