John Prine, the raspy-voiced country-folk singer whose ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favourite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others, died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 73.
The cause was complications from COVID-19, his family said.
Prine underwent cancer surgery in 1998 to remove a tumour in his neck identified as squamose cell cancer, which had damaged his vocal cords. In 2013, he had part of one lung removed to treat lung cancer.
Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when Kristofferson heard him play one night at a small Chicago club called the Fifth Peg, dragged there by singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. At the Fifth Peg, Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Kristofferson later wrote, “was unlike anything I’d heard before.”
A few weeks later, when Prine was in New York, Kristofferson invited him onstage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where he was appearing with Carly Simon, and introduced him to the audience.
“No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,” he said. “John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”
Record executive Jerry Wexler, who was in the audience, signed Prine to a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.
Music writers at the time were eager to crown a successor to Dylan, and Prine, with his nasal, sandpapery voice and literate way with a song, came ready to order. His debut album, called simply ‘John Prine’ and released in 1971, included songs that became his signatures. Some gained wider fame after being recorded by other artists.
They included ‘Sam Stone,’ about a drug-addicted war veteran (with the unforgettable refrain “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”); “Hello in There,” a heart-rending evocation of old age and loneliness; and ‘Angel From Montgomery’, the hard-luck lament of a middle-aged woman dreaming about a better life, later made famous by Bonnie Raitt.
“He’s a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain,” Raitt told Rolling Stone in 1992.
Dylan, listing his favourite songwriters in a 2009 interview, put Prine front and centre. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said. “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
John Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago, to William and Verna (Hamm) Prine. His father, a tool-and-die maker at American Can Co., and his mother had moved from the coal town of Paradise, Kentucky, in the 1930s.
Not long after, Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, wandered into the club while Prine was performing. He liked what he heard and wrote Prine’s first review, under the headline “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.”
“He appears onstage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” Ebert wrote. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Prine had a particular gift for offbeat humour, reflected in songs like ‘Jesus, the Missing Years’, ‘Some Humans Ain’t Human’, ‘Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone’ and the anti-war screed ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore’.
“I guess what I always found funny was the human condition,” he told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2013. “There is a certain comedy and pathos to trouble and accidents.”
After recording several albums for Atlantic and Asylum, he started his own label, Oh Boy Records, in 1984. He never had a hit record, but he commanded a loyal audience that ensured steady if modest sales for his albums and a durable concert career.
In 1992, his album ‘The Missing Years’, with guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and other artists, won a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk recording. He received a second Grammy in the same category in 2006 for the album ‘Fair and Square’.
Prine, who lived in Nashville, was divorced twice. He is survived by his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, a native of Ireland whom he married in 1996; three sons, Jody, Jack and Tommy; two brothers, Dave and Billy; and three grandchildren. In 2017, Prine published ‘John Prine Beyond Words’, a collection of lyrics, guitar chords, commentary and photographs from his own archive.
In 2019, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his album ‘Tree of Forgiveness’ was nominated for a Grammy, for best Americana album. It was his 19th album and his first of original material in more than a decade. (The award went to Brandi Carlile, for ‘By the Way, I Forgive You’.)
Prine went on tour in 2018 to promote ‘Tree of Forgiveness’, and after a two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — known there as the mother church of country music — Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, wrote, under the headline ‘American Oracle’: “The mother church of country music, where the seats are scratched-up pews and the windows are stained glass, is the place where the new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”
In December, he was chosen to receive a 2020 Grammy for lifetime achievement.