An American treasure is now gone.
Country-folk singer and songwriter John Prine died Tuesday at the age of 73 from complications due to the coronavirus, his family confirmed. He is survived by his third wife Fiona Whelan, stepson Jody Whelan, and their two sons Tommy and Jack.
Born in 1946 to a working-class couple from western Kentucky and raised in a Chicago suburb, Prine learned guitar at 14 years old and served in Europe during the Vietnam War before returning home to be a mailman.
While delivering mail, an admittedly shy Prine moonlit as an open-mic performer at the Fifth Peg club in Chicago’s folk-revival scene. According to the legend, Prine didn’t perform at first, merely observing, but after a dare from one singer, he finally did get on stage, eventually quitting his mail gig to pursue music full-time.
One night, Roger Ebert stumbled upon Prine’s performance and wrote the singer’s first ever review. And then after Kris Kristofferson dragged him to New York to perform for industry folk, Prine’s fate was sealed.
Throughout his five-decade career, Prine was often labeled the “songwriter’s songwriter,” not just because his only chart-toppers were scored by other great writers recording his music, but because few songwriters were as universally beloved, admired, and envied by their peers as Prine was.
“If God’s got a favorite songwriter, I think it’s John Prine,” Kristofferson said at Prine’s 2003 Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame induction.
“He’s just one of the greats, and an old, old soul,” his friend Rosanne Cash once said of him. Roger Waters declared in 2008 that he prefers the “extra-ordinarily eloquent music” of Prine to the modern bands influenced by Pink Floyd’s work, like Radiohead. Prine’s music, the Floyd bassist/vocalist said, lives on the same plane as icons like John Lennon and Neil Young.
And the reigning American bard-in-chief Bob Dylan was effusive in one 2009 interview, naming Prine as among his favorite writers, adding: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs… Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
Indeed, Prine was a rare songwriter with a gift for both melodic and lyrical incisiveness. He didn’t need to pull any verbal sorcery to make you gasp and think “Did he just do that?” The magic was all in how profoundly and bluntly he observed the most mundane details of life and death, even for characters living on the fringe. His melancholic tales were economical and precise in their gut-punches.
There’s perhaps no greater example of this than in the refrain of “Sam Stone,” a ballad from his self-titled 1971 debut album about a war vet who came back with a Purple Heart, developed a drug addiction, and died of an overdose: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.”
Prine didn’t need to convince you to imagine anything or fill in any blanks—it’s all right there. He famously never resorted to schmaltz to sell a story. In fact, much of Prine’s best work is starkly unsentimental, instead winking, nodding, and grinning at the sheer absurdity of it all.
“What I always found funny was the human condition,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2013. “There is a certain comedy and pathos to trouble and accidents.” Whether it be on his oddball tale of culture shock in “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” his ode to the everyman’s gripes in “Dear Abby,” his saga of a draft-dodger seeking paradise in “Spanish Pipedream,” or his dead man’s plea to “Please Don’t Bury Me” and instead give away his organs to various people, no thought was too dark for a liberal dash of humor.
And such irreverence extended into his political work. While most of his contemporaries’ social commentary was loaded with hamfisted metaphors or biblically apocalyptic language, Prine preferred to skewer his subjects with a chuckle.
The folk songwriter’s greatest protest song, “Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” was actually a comedy song, a Midwestern boy’s irony-drenched parable about a familiar Middle American man killed by his own lust for American flag decals as a signifier of his goodness, only to be rebuffed at the gates of heaven.
“My favorite kind of protest songwriter is someone like John Prine—somebody who slips it to you gently,” Kristofferson once remarked.
He also had a wonderful gift for writing from wildly different perspectives than his own. While in just his early twenties, Prine wrote two of his earliest masterpieces, “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There”—the former, from the point of view of an unhappily married middle-aged woman fantasizing about a better life; the latter, from inside the lonely mind of a geriatric with increasingly fewer people to talk to.
“You write a song about something that you think might be taboo, you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it,” Prine once explained to Rolling Stone. “I call it optimistic pessimism. You admit everything that's wrong and you talk about it in the sharpest terms, in the keenest way you can.”
As a teenager, upon discovering this songwriter who so coolly riffed on our absurd existence with the confidence of someone who’d seen it all tenfold and lived to tell, I recall thinking: “Man, this guy’s got it all figured out.”
And in some ways, it seems like he really did. Much in the way he laughed at the human condition, Prine twice laughed in the face of death.
In the late ’90s, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. The tumor-removal surgery also removed a portion of his neck and severed some nerves, forever lowering the timbre of his voice to a gravelly rumble. But in short time, Prine was back to business. In 2013, he was again diagnosed with cancer—this time in his left lung. Six months later, he was back on the road.
As such, the latter portion of his career felt like a celebration of life and music, largely defined by championing other artists and putting on rollicking, feel-good shows.
Since the late ’90s, he collaborated with mostly female artists like Bonnie Raitt (a longtime tourmate who has taken “Angel from Montgomery” to stratospheric heights), Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Iris Dement—as heard on his celebrated 1999 album In Spite of Ourselves. And in more recent years, he dueted with the likes of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, as on his 2016 LP For Better, or Worse.
Prine’s live shows over the past few decades, his voice low and rattly from the cancer surgery, were warm, celebratory, and inspiringly communal affairs.
It was never a surprise for an all-star cast of songwriters to come out for a song or two; the mutual on-stage love was genre-spanning—whether it be Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
And the multi-generational crowds laughed, hollered, and sang along to every one of his yarns, and Prine never once stopped smiling.