- 08 Apr 20
God's own singer of songs is going home
The great John Prine, the Mark Twain of American music, has passed away from COVID-19 complications. If you hear someone like Kris Kristofferson say, "if God's got a favourite songwriter, I think it's John Prine" or someone like Bob Dylan say, "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier junky daddy and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that", then it starts to become clear just what a talent we have all lost. Hot Press would like to extend our deepest sympathies to John's wife Fiona, his sons Jack, Tommy, and Jody, his extended family and friends, and all his fans around the world.
Born on October 10, 1946, Prine grew up in Chicago, learned a little guitar from his brother Dave, and left school - no great loss to academia, apparently - to become a mail man. After serving his required two years in the army, he returned to the post office, composing embryonic versions of future classics like 'Hello In There' on his route. He played his first show at an open mic in 1969 and became a regular at the Fifth Peg in Chicago, where the young Roger Ebert caught his show - by accident - and wrote an article which gave Prine his first leg up. Then Kristofferson saw him, was bowled over - "by the end of the first line, we knew we were hearing something else" - and invited him to New York to play.
The debut John Prine album was released in 1971 and contained several songs which are now considered standards, such as 'Angel From Montgomery' and 'Hello In There', alongside such harrowing fare as 'Sam Stone' and the song that Prine himself often mentioned as a favourite, 'Far From Me'. Even before the record came out, Prine had already received the nod from Dylan when Bob started singing along to 'Far From Me' at a party in Carly Simon's house where Prine was playing. Prine's songs were so good, said Kristofferson, "we might have to break his thumbs."
1972's Diamonds In The Rough took a turn into bluegrass territory, and the following year's Sweet Revenge even managed to find a place in the pop charts, albeit at number 135, containing as it did the marvellous 'Grandpa Was A Carpenter'. Prine made another shift in style by working with Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn on Common Sense in 1975, having had his profile raised significantly by Bonnie Raitt's well-regarded version of 'Angel Montgomery, which was released the year before.
Prine moved to Nashville in 1980 and started his own independent label Oh Boy Records, which would release his music for the rest of his life. His second album for the label, 1986's German Afternoons, featured 'Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness', an instant classic that Irish music fans cannot have helped but hear at least once or twice if they ever went to a gig at all in the 80s and 90s. Both Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen helped out on The Missing Years in 1991, and 1999's duets album with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, In Spite Of Ourselves, is up there with his best.
2005's Fair & Square took home the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but Prine kept one of his finest records for last with 2018's The Tree Of Forgiveness, which managed to debut at number five on the Billboard 200 and found Prine co-writing with everyone from Dan Auerbach to Phil Spector.
Prine was due at the Olympia Theatre in August of this year for a naturally sold-out show, but his last stop here in Vicar Street was truly something special, warm and funny in a way that was unique to him.
Prine won all the awards due to him - Songwriters Hall Of Fame, Grammy Hall Of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame, you name it - and it is indeed as a master songwriter that he'll be remembered. Johnny Cash said he was a songwriting inspiration and even someone as perhaps unlikely as Roger Waters praised his "extraordinarily eloquent music." We should all be glad that Kristofferson left his thumbs alone. May he rest in peace.
"When I get to heaven, I'm gonna shake God's hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I'm gonna get a guitar and start a rock 'n' roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain't the afterlife grand?"