The death of John Prine following complications brought on by Covid-19 has not just robbed the Americana world of one of its finest talents, it has robbed music more widely of a true original and an inspiration to so many. Giants such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash have all cited Prine as someone whose work they admired. In his autobiography Cash wrote “I don’t listen to music much…unless I’m going into songwriting mode and looking for inspiration. Then I’ll put on something by the writers I’ve admired and used for years, Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Guy Clark and Steve Goodman are my Big Four”. John Prine won such accolades because he charted his own direction rather than chasing any prevailing fashions. Quite the opposite, others followed in John Prine’s wake and many artists have been moved and inspired by him. His influence was as pervasive in recent years as it had been previously, with a new generation of songwriters, including Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price all paying homage to him.
John Prine was born in Maywood, Illinois on October 10, 1946. In the late 1960s he moved to Chicago following a stint in the US Army. In Chicago, Prine got a job as a mailman. He wrote and sang songs as a hobby at this point, often rehearsing them in his head as he did his mail round. He started playing open mics and soon became part of the thriving Chicago folk scene led by himself, Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc. It was at this time that he was seen by the Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert who wrote his first review. Following this, his friend and fellow musician Steve Goodman persuaded Kris Kristofferson to come and see him play. Kristofferson was bowled over and invited Prine to play with him in New York, also inviting record mogul Jerry Wexler along to watch. The next day Wexler signed Prine to Atlantic Records.
John Prine’s self-titled debut album was released in 1971, receiving many positive reviews and much critical acclaim. It contained songs that would remain part of his repertoire to the end and were covered by numerous other artists. Sam Stone, Angel From Montgomery, Paradise and Illegal Smile marked Prine out as a songwriter in the very top bracket. Having made such a splash, it might have been expected that Prine would go for something more lavish to follow it up and to hammer home his star potential. Instead, with ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ (1972), he went for a stripped-back, bluegrass-inspired sound which his fans loved, but that did nothing for wider exposure. Prine made two more albums for Atlantic, ‘Sweet Revenge’ (1973) and ‘Common Sense’ (1975) before asking to be released due to his belief that the label was not backing him sufficiently.
After leaving Atlantic, Prine signed for Asylum Records. His first release for them was ‘Bruised Orange’ (1978) which is widely regarded as his finest work. In true Prine style he then followed it up with ‘Pink Cadillac’ (1979) which was a rock ‘n’ roll record. Indeed it was recorded at Sam Phillips’ Recording Studio in Memphis. The emphasis was much more on a band sound and less on Prine’s writing. He contributed only five of the album’s songs, the rest being covers. Prine himself later recalled that when they heard it “Asylum nearly had a heart attack” and indeed it sold less well than it’s much-feted predecessor. Prine made one more album for Asylum, ‘Storm Windows’ released in 1980, that, although recorded in Muscle Shoals, was essentially a country album which previewed the direction that he would take for the next decade.
In 1981, disillusioned with the exploitation of artists by major record labels, Prine co-founded his own Oh Boy Records. All of his subsequent records were released via the label which also gave opportunities to Todd Snider, Dan Reeder and more recently Kelsey Waldon. Prine’s first release on the label was ‘Aimless Love’ (1984), an album funded by fan donations. The album was well received but was his first to fail to make the Billboard Top 200. This was followed up with ‘German Afternoons’ (1986) which featured bluegrass band New Grass Revival and returned Prine to his folk roots. It contained ‘The Sound of The Speed of Loneliness’ which was to become one of his best loved and most requested songs. The critics loved it and the album was nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best Contemporary Folk Recording’.
Other than ‘John Prine Live’ (1988) it would be another five years before Prine released the ironically titled ‘The Missing Years’ (1991). Sometimes seen as his ‘comeback’ album, it is certainly one of his finest. Produced by Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein and featuring a host of high-profile guests including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Everly, it was widely praised with the Chicago Tribune stating that it was “One of the singer-songwriter’s strongest and most wittily observant efforts, the album finds Prine at the top of his form”. The album also went one better than ‘German Afternoons’ by capturing a Grammy Award. Prine stuck with Epstein for the follow-up ‘Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings’ (1995). The album was again well received and gained another Grammy nomination. Rolling Stone commented that “John Prine is doing the best work of his career right now”.
In 1998 Prine was diagnosed with cancer in his neck. The resultant surgery removed a large amount of tissue which not only changed his appearance, but changed his voice too, giving it a gravel tone. In 1999 Prine released ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ a collection of duets with female singers including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Iris DeMent. The songs were old country covers with the single exception of the title track which Prine wrote himself. The album continued Prine’s run of critically acclaimed releases. ‘Souvenirs’ (2000) was a collection of revamped Prine favourites recorded in just three days. However, it was 2004’s ‘Fair & Square’ that was to give Prine his most commercially successful record to date and his second Grammy Award.
An album of old standards with Mac Wiseman ‘Standard Songs for Average People’ (2007) proved to be Prine’s last release for nine years as ill health took hold of him culminating in surgery for lung cancer in 2013. As with his previous bout of cancer Prine chose to make his return with an album of duets with female singers ‘For Better, or Worse’ is really a sister album to 1999’s ‘In Spite of Ourselves’. As with that release, Prine was able to gather an impressive array of partners for the album. Other than Fiona Prine, Iris DeMent is the only singer to appear on both albums and was this time joined by Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Amanda Shires amongst others, confirming the high esteem in which Prine is held by the new generation. The album was a great success, giving Prine his first ever Top 30 album.
In 2018 John Prine released his first album of original songs for 13 years. It was his eighteenth studio album and sadly his last. It showed that he had lost none of his purpose and certainly none of his humour. It also proved to be by far his most successful album, reaching Number 5 in the album charts. Sadly his two attempts to bring these songs to the UK were both cancelled due to ill health. Nevertheless, anyone who witnessed any of his many previous visits to these shores, will cherish those memories.
When the news came through that John Prine had coronavirus, many of us feared the worse given his age and ill health. Nevertheless, it was still a shock, if not a surprise, to hear the dreadful news of his passing. Every AUK reader will, I am sure, in some way have been touched by his songs, his spirit, his purpose and his humour. Those of us who love this thing we call Americana, have lost one of its great pillars. However his legacy is assured. A rich catalogue of brilliant songs remain and a new generation of songwriters will continue to be moved and inspired by him. It is perhaps fitting that one of his last public appearances was to receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. These are given to “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording”. Rarely have those words been more appropriate.