John Prine, one of the most influential songwriters in American history and an icon of roots and Americana music, has died at age 73 following more than a week of intensive care in Nashville for COVID-19. He burst onto the songwriter scene as a fully mature artist in 1971 with a self-titled album full of masterpieces, endured through two bouts of cancer, and enjoyed a late career celebration for his incisive, charming 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness. His passing, feared by the music community over a grueling ten-day vigil, evoked waves of sorrow and tribute from fans and colleagues across the globe.
“We are crushed by the loss of John Prine,” wrote Bruce Springsteen on Twitter. “John and I were "New Dylans" together in the early 70s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.” Brandi Carlile wrote “I’m gonna miss singin’ this one with you John so tonight I’ll sing it to you,” on Instagram as she performed “Summer’s End,” an award-winning song from Prine’s final album. “I know you didn’t make it home in the way we all wanted but you made it home. Put in a good word for us.”
Prine’s wife Fiona Whelan Prine made it known on March 19 that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and that she’d isolated herself at home. John Prine was hospitalized on March 26 and was put on a ventilator two days later. Fiona Prine then announced she had recovered, saying that John was stable but not improving. In a statement released Wednesday, Fiona said she had been allowed to be with her husband in the hours before his death. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world,” she said. “John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.”
Prine’s music was a canny amalgam of country, folk and old-time rock and roll, the very essence of Americana. He occupies a place in history alongside the greatest-ever in country and folk songwriting, including Kris Kristofferson, who discovered him as a club singer in Chicago, Guy Clark, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, who expressed deep admiration for the artist. Prine's immortal, oft-covered songs include “Angel From Montgomery,” “Unwed Fathers,” “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness,” “Souvenirs,” and “Paradise,” a memoir of his family’s roots in western Kentucky.
Prine was a humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and James Thurber, a man of working-class roots who was intellectually equipped to give a caustic side-eye to the American zeitgeist while also offering heart-piercing profiles of imperfect but noble characters. His social songs were often oblique and witty but no less impactful than the straight protest songs of some of his peers. He pierced gender double-standards in “Unwed Fathers,” dignified the plight of addicted veterans in “Sam Stone” and rattled America’s Vietnam era jingoism in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
The latter two songs came from Prine’s self-titled debut album, which is an American songbook unto itself. There is scarcely a roots or folk artist alive who hasn’t pored over that album like scripture, studying every quirky, brilliant line. He was a modest man with a modest commercial track record, but he won two Grammy Awards and the second-ever Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, conferred in 2003. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame one year ago.
John Prine was born October 10, 1946 and grew up in Maywood, Illinois, a West Side Chicago suburb. He spent summers in western Kentucky, where his parents were born, as his famous song of nostalgia and environmental solidarity “Paradise” describes. His early interest in the guitar and songs was cultivated by his older brother Dave and lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Fifty years ago this year, while he was working delivering mail on foot, he played his first open mic, on a dare it’s said, at a folk club called the Fifth Peg.
Things moved rather quickly after that, because his talents were so obvious. A young Roger Ebert caught Prine in performance and gave him his first review, which drew an audience. Prine met his dear companion Steve Goodman, who made sure that Kris Kristofferson heard him perform. That led to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and the debut album, recorded in Memphis with some of that city’s finest studio musicians. Prine never had a top ten album (until his last one) but he quickly built a feverish fan base and a defensive phalanx of critics who recognized his acute individuality and piercing wordplay.
Other artists began to recognize the material as well, further extending Prine’s influence. David Allan Coe got on the country charts with the Prine/Goodman song “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” and the same year, 1974, Bonnie Raitt released a career single with Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” In that first decade, Prine released six albums. Sweet Revenge included his unforgettable “Dear Abby,” satirizing the advice columnist. Steve Cropper, the Memphis Stax Records guitarist, produced Common Sense in 1975, with its trippy send-up of cultists “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” as well as “You Never Can Tell,” by Chuck Berry, a prime Prine influence.
In the 80s, Prine became a pioneer of the artist-owned label, forming Oh Boy Records in Nashville with his manager Al Bunetta. Now the second-oldest artist-owned label, it became the vehicle for Prine’s two Grammy-winners, 1991’s The Missing Years and 2005’s Fair & Square. And a tribute album in 2010 proved that Prine’s influence was strong with a new generation of top roots and rock performers, including participants Old Crow Medicine Show, Josh Ritter, The Avett Brothers and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Prine also emerged as an effective collaborator, releasing two stunning duets albums (1999’s In Spite Of Ourselves and 2016’s For Better, Or Worse) with a variety of leading women in folk and roots. 2007 saw the release of Standard Songs For Average People, an intimate duo set with country legend Mac Wiseman.
In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his neck, which required surgery and radiation treatment that left his voice more rough-hewn but no less understandable or affectionate. Then he battled lung cancer starting in 2013, which took him off the road for half a year. But he soldered on, putting on some of the most heart-enlarging shows of his career.
The Tree of Forgiveness, the first album of original songs in 13 years, came out in 2018. Produced by Dave Cobb and featuring guests including Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, it was hailed as a triumphant comeback by an Americana hero. Its final track “When I Get To Heaven” makes for an uncanny and cheering benediction to a life that brimmed with creativity and joie de vivre. It’s opening lines:
“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?”
* This story has been updated and expanded.
The Prine family has asked that in lieu of flowers or gifts, that those intersted in honoring John Prine may make donations to the following non-profits: