We’ve lost of one the truly great ones with the passing of John Prine, finally succumbing as he did to complications arising from Covid-19 infection. When our editor asked who wanted to do a Top 10 John Prine Songs feature my hand shot straight up, “Pick me, pick me” or something to that effect I replied back to him on our staff forum. It was only when I got the nod to go ahead did the realisation of what I had volunteered for slowly dawn on me. This was going to be hard, very hard. I had started to look again at John’s whole back catalogue and the enormity of the task had started to sink in! How do I pick a top 10 out of almost 50 years of stunning musical work? Then a sense of calm returned as I recognised that in fact there is no such thing as a list of Top 10 John Prine songs and this is just a list of 10 Great John Prine songs and everyone will have their own top 10. As one of my writing colleagues at AUK remarked: “JP was so good you could pick 10 of his songs at random and still do him justice.” He was right of course.
I remember it well. The first time I heard John Prine that is. I was high (at altitude and not on illegal substances) on a mountain in Alaska when one of my climbing buddies played the whole of ‘The Missing Years’ and over the course of the next few days as we made our way up and down that remote peak I made him play it over and over again. I was hooked, enthralled by the wit, the mesmerising lyrics and the seemingly simple but beguiling melodies, it was as if he knew me, he was talking to me, his songs enveloped me and landed forever in my heart and in my soul.
With the release in 1971 of his self-titled ‘John Prine’ a star was born and although the album wasn’t a huge commercial success (it never even reached the top 100 of the album charts). With tracks like ‘Illegal Smile’, ‘Hello in There’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery’ that seems almost criminal.
‘Sam Stone’ Let’s kick this off though with ‘Sam Stone’ from that same debut album and the line “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.” Still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and like many of the video clips in this feature, it’s a live version which is where John was at his best connecting with his audience as a master storyteller as well as being a great singer-songwriter.
‘Hello in There’ explores the themes of old age and loneliness and given what the world is experiencing right now, the words “So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes,/Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare/As if you didn’t care/say, Hello in there, hello” were never more apt.
‘Souvenirs’ came from his second album ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ and this live version with his early writing partner, the late Steve Goodman, may not be the best audio and video quality but it was simply too good to leave out.
‘Paradise’ was another gem from his first album as John laid bare his direct social commentary on the strip mining which was taking place in Muhlenberg County in Kentucky (where his parents originated from) and which ultimately led to the demise of the town of Paradise.
‘Some Humans Ain’t Human’ From the social commentary of ‘Paradise’ to the political commentary of ‘Some Humans Ain’t Human’ from his 2005 album ‘Fair and Square’. Prine reputedly said that that he didn’t want to die with people not being sure where he stood on George W. Bush. “Or you’re feeling your freedom/And the world’s off your back/Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq”. You succeeded John – we all know where you stood!
‘All The Best’ is one of the few slightly bitter songs that John Prine wrote, coming as it does on the heels of his divorce from his second wife but in his own inimitable style there is a wry and humorous undercurrent to the song and, as always, his infectious smile helps him carry it off.
‘Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’ has been covered by many artists, including Nanci Griffith on her ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms‘ album as well as Kim Carnes but with no disrespect to those two ladies, they can’t really hold a candle to the original.
‘In Spite of Ourselves’ I was lucky enough to see John Prine live in his heartland of Chicago and he brought Iris DeMent on stage to perform ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ and despite (because of?) DeMent’s unique voice it just worked wonderfully. It came originally from the album of the same name and is the only John Prine original on this album of duets with some of his favourite female artists.
‘When I Get To Heaven’ John Prine was at his best live, his infectious smile and wonderfully laconic persona shone through every time. Although this is late in his career and his voice was gruffer following his cancer treatments, this prophetic version, live at Austin City Limits, is a perfect encapsulation of everything John ever sang about. Life, death, the afterlife and all delivered with that wonderfully irreverent sense of humour.
‘Lake Marie’ ‘Live From Sessions at West 54th‘ is a masterful video which showcases all that was great about John Prine and we’ll end this tribute of 10 Great John Prine songs with this lengthy joyous version of what is a pretty dark song. This is John at this best, smiling, loving the music, playing really well, loving performing and simply being John Prine.