Last evening, we learned of the passing of John Prine, 73, from COVID-19 complications. Though initially branded by the press as one of the “new Dylans,” it wasn’t long before the singer-songwriter transcended that label – and most others. With wit, humor, anger, empathy, and social conscience, the onetime “singing mailman” delivered mordant observations and poignant character studies over a career spanning five decades.
Prine burst onto the scene with his 1971 self-titled release on Atlantic Records, establishing his own blend of folk, country, and rock. Though John Prine didn’t get any higher than No. 154 on Billboard‘s U.S. albums chart, it introduced more future standards than most top ten records. “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Angel from Montgomery” and “Paradise” all established Prine as a major voice. It wasn’t long before the album was raided by other artists looking for choice material. Bonnie Raitt and Carly Simon tackled “Angel,” Bette Midler recorded “Hello in There,” and Swamp Dogg covered “Sam Stone.” Jackie DeShannon and John Denver were among the first to reinterpret “Paradise.” Denver also brought his warm style to the album’s “Spanish Pipedream,” and Prine’s friend and collaborator Steve Goodman recorded “Donald and Lydia” for a solo LP of his own. Prine built his audience not only on records, but with his intimate live performances during which the connection between audience and artist was palpable.
John Prine launched a four-album tenure on Atlantic which saw him welcome Cissy Houston, Steve Cropper, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey, Bonnie Raitt, and other notables to play and sing with him. In subsequent years, he continued to explore the human condition on the Asylum label and his own Oh Boy Records. After a brief, five-year sabbatical from the recording studio, Prine returned in 1991 with The Missing Years, featuring guest turns from Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Everly, and Tom Petty. No mere nostalgist, Prine recorded a Christmas album in 1994, comprising original songs in his singular voice with a couple of vintage standards.
A songwriter’s songwriter, Prine made fans of such diverse artists as Kris Kristofferson, Paul Anka, and Bob Dylan. Upon beating cancer, he took a left-turn and celebrated the country music of his youth on 1994’s In Spite of Ourselves. Duet partners lined up to sing with him, among them Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Connie Smith, and Lucinda Williams. By this point, Prine was an influential elder statesman of folk, a role he embraced on such thoughtful albums as Standard Songs for Average People, For Better, Or Worse, and his final studio release, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness. On the latter, younger talents like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Dan Auerbach paid him tribute with their contributions.
Of course, there was nothing standard about John Prine, but his chronicles for, and of, so-called “average people” gave them dignity and agency. His gift to us was evident from that very first collection of songs: witness the aging couple in “Hello in There,” the addicted veteran and father of “Sam Stone,” the lonely housewife of “Angel from Montgomery,” or the forgotten community of “Paradise.” He didn’t soften with the passage of time. Whereas that first record had “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” sharply critiquing false patriotism, 2005’s Fair and Square addressed the Iraq War on “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” With unflinching honesty, keen observation, and genuine concern, Prine’s gentle rasp was a voice for our time, and for all time.