John Prine (October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020) was an American country folk singer-songwriter. He was active as a composer, recording artist, and live performer from the early 1970s until his death, was known for an often humorous style of country music with elements of protest and social commentary, and was widely regarded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation.
John Prine was born and raised in the Maywood suburb of Chicago and started playing guitar at age 14. He attended classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois.
He served in the United States Army, based in Germany, before beginning his musical career in Chicago in the late 1960s.
John Prine was a mailman for five years and while he was delivering mail he began to sing at open mic evenings at the Fifth Peg on Armitage Avenue in Chicago. He was initially a spectator and was reluctant to perform, but eventually did. The Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert heard him there and wrote the first review John Prine ever received, calling him a great songwriter. He became a central figure in the Chicago folk revival, which also included other singer-songwriters like Steve Goodman, Michael Peter Smith, Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Tom Dundee, Anne Hills and Fred Holstein.
In 1971 Prine’s self-titled debut album was released and included his signature songs “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” and the folk and country standards “Angel from Montgomery” and “Paradise.” The album also featured “Hello in There”, a song about aging that was later covered by several artists, and “Far From Me”, a lonely waltz about lost love for a waitress that John Prine later said was his favorite of all his songs. The album received lots of positive reviews, and some even called Prine “the next Dylan”.
John Prine’s second album, “Diamonds in the Rough” (1972), was a surprise for many after the critical success of his first LP, as it was an uncommercial, stripped-down affair that reflected his love of bluegrass music and features songs reminiscent of Hank Williams.
His next albums included “Sweet Revenge£ (1973), containing fan favorites like “Dear Abby,” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” and “Christmas in Prison,” and “Common Sense” (1975), with “Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard”. The latter of which was john Prine’s first to be charted in the US Top 100 by Billboard, reflecting growing commercial success.
In 1975, John Prine toured the U.S. and Canada with a full band featuring guitarist Arlen Roth. This turned out to be his only tour with a full band.
His next album “Bruised Orange”, in 1978, is considered by many as a creative highpoint and included songs such as “The Hobo Song,” “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” and the title track “Bruised Orange”.
John Prine’s 1979 album “Pink Cadillac” features two songs produced by legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who by this time rarely did any studio work. The song “Saigon,” is about a Vietnam vet traumatized by the war (“The static in my attic’s gettin’ ready to blow”), and “How Lucky,” about Prine’s hometown.
In 1981, John Prine rejected the established model of the recording industry, which he felt exploited singers and songwriters, and co-founded the independent record label Oh Boy Records. His fans, who supported the project, sent him enough money to cover the costs, in advance, of his next album. John Prine continued writing and recording albums throughout the 1980s, and his songs continued to be covered by other artists with the supergroup “The Highwaymen” (which included Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) recorded “The 20th Century Is Almost Over,” which had been written by Prine and Steve Goodman.
In 1991, Prine released the Grammy Award-winning “The Missing Years”, his first collaboration with producer and Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. In 1995, another collaboration with Epstein “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings” was released, and followed in 1999 by “In Spite of Ourselves”, which was unusual in that it contained only one original song (the title track), with the rest covers of classic country songs. All of the tracks are duets with well-known female country vocalists, including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Dolores Keane, Trisha Yearwood, and Iris DeMent.
In his 1997 autobiography, Johnny Cash, said, “I don’t listen to music much at the farm, 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 the late Steve Goodman are my Big Four …”
In 2004 John Prine recorded a version of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” for the compilation album “Beautiful Dreamer”, which went on to win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2004.
In 2005, Prine released the album “Fair & Square”, which tended toward a more laid-back, acoustic approach and contains songs such as “Safety Joe,” about a man who has never taken any risks in his life, and “Some Humans Ain’t Human”, his protest song on the album, which talks about the ugly side of human nature and includes a shot at President George W. Bush. “Fair & Square” won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Roger Waters, was asked by Word Magazine in 2008 if he heard Pink Floyd’s influence in newer British bands like Radiohead, and replied, “I don’t really listen to Radiohead. I listened to the albums and they just didn’t move me in the way, say, John Prine does. His is just extraordinarily eloquent music — and he lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon.”
In 2009, Bob Dylan told The Huffington Post that John Prine was one of his favorite writers, and said “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism and he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. ‘Sam Stone’ featuring the wonderfully evocative line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.’ All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy, and ‘Donald and Lydia’, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
In 2016, John Prine released “For Better, or Worse” which was a follow-up to “In Spite of Ourselves” from 1999, and featured country music covers featuring some of the most prominent female voices including Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack and Iris DeMent, the only artist to be featured on both albums.
On February 8, 2018, John Prine announced his first new album of original material in 13 years, titled “The Tree of Forgiveness”, would be released on April 13. It was produced by Dave Cobb, was released on Prine’s own record label Oh Boy Records, features guest artists Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Dan Auerbach and Brandi Carlile, and became Prine’s highest-charting album on the Billboard 200.
On March 19, 2020, John Prine’s wife Fiona revealed that she had tested positive for the COVID-19 (coronavirus) and had been quarantined in her home away from him. John Prine was then hospitalized on March 26, 2020, after experiencing symptoms, and died on April 7, 2020, aged 73, from complications of the COVID-19 (coronavirus).
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