*John Prine passed away on April 7, 2020 from complications related to the Covid19 virus at the age of 73.
The first time I heard about John Prine was from a buddy of mine in college. We’d just arrived home from a raucous Todd Snider show, blasting Jerry Jeff Walker on the way home. As the key unlocked the navy blue door bellowing the four of us into a standard twenty-something after party, the first thing that caught my eye was a newly unboxed Jimmy Buffett box set. This was back when box sets were a big deal. My buddy caught me eyeing it and was like…if you like Snider and Buffett, you’ll love John Prine…Jimmy even covers some of his songs. Prine was a name I knew, but in the same way you know what a green or red light mean at an intersection. I understood its importance, but had never investigated how it came to be. And, that was all the introduction I needed. I immediately fell down the John Prine Limewire wormhole.
This exploration led me to the realization that a song I’d heard hundreds of times, Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel From Montgomery”, was actually John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery”. Then it went on and on with all the amazingly warm and detailed songs. “Paradise”, “Sam Stone”, “Illegal Smile”, “Lake Marie” and so on.
Soon I discovered that it wasn’t my misguided conception that Steve Goodman had written “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” solo, but was in fact aided by a ghostwriting Prine. I had to know more. And the more I dug, the more I loved. The more I found that all the writers I loved and respected revered him on a level only reserved for the likes of Townes and Guy. He completed the triumvirate. And for good reason.
It is not hyperbole to say that Americana music and by proxy, Texas/Red Dirt, would not exit in its current form (possibly any form) without the artistry of John Prine. A whimsical and clever songwriter who worked in the grimy details of life. He wrote about drug addicts, PTSD, love, criminals, happiness and strife. All manner of life is chronicled in a uniquely American and Prine manner. He grasped things he learned from a lifetime of being an observer and turned it outward.
The story goes that he was discovered by Kristofferson. And Dylan has long claimed that Prine is is favorite songwriter. That’s the level of acclaim Prine has enjoyed while maintaining an underground cool that is only rivaled over the years by the likes of artists like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Prine was the ultimate cool card to play. Saying you were a John Prine fan solidified your legitimacy. It took your music fandom next level. He was the key that unlocked the door to so much that could be found beyond it.
The myth of the songwriter belies the everyman behind it. Just a regular dude with the extraordinary ability to write songs. He never found fame or fortune. But he discovered a world of respect and renown based on the words that sprang from his pen. He beat cancer twice and just kept writing. He founded a record label and helped foist artists like Snider on the world. His DIY aesthetic would become a blueprint for musicians of all stripes the world over.
Prine enjoyed a career that survived more ups and downs than Dewey Cox. Acclaim followed by nothing. Cycle. Repeat. He had saved perhaps his brightest for last. Over the past few years, Prine claimed the top prizes at the Americana awards. And this wasn’t just a career achievement pity award, it was well-deserved. For Better or Worse and The Tree of Forgiveness were two of his best ever and he cranked them out at age 69 or better. A true testament to his greatness.
John Prine is quite simply one of a handful of the greatest songwriters of all time. His style and influence will reverberate through the ages. The top songs of his canon will last for centuries. Songwriting as art has only been accomplished at such a high level very few times.