John Prine 1946-2020 — death of a legendary singer/songwriter/poet

When I first started learning how to play the acoustic guitar, way back in about 1978 or so, one of the first artists whose songs I learned was John Prine (the other was Neil Young, and later on Leon Redbone, who passed away last year). One of the things I liked about John Prine was that he only ever used about four chords, and they were really easy to play — G, D, C, maybe an A minor now and then. But as I got to know him and his songs, it became increasingly clear that he was a genius — not a musical genius perhaps, but definitely a songwriting genius. A true poet, in the same vein as Dylan or Springsteen, but his songs are arguably a lot less cryptic than the former’s and a lot less mythical than the latter’s.

Prine songs are deceptively simple: They are about normal people named Donald or Lydia or Linda or Rudy, people with simple lives that consist of being in the army, working in factories, growing old, walking down the railway tracks in the winter, etc. But there is magic in the way John Prine writes about them — he lulls you into a false sense of security in some songs, with some light-hearted, feel-good banter, and then he hits you with a line that cuts like a knife. Something so artfully stated that it reveals an insight about human nature with only a few well-chosen words. Springsteen told Rolling Stone: “He was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives.”

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” Sam Stone

In a remembrance that he sent to music writer Bob Lefsetz for his Lefsetz Letter, musician Tom Rush mentioned what he called “the sideways, sometimes upside-down takes on life that had us smiling and singing along. Ways of looking at things that were new to the world but were expressed so forcefully and engagingly that you could not turn away — there was no choice in the matter, you had to love him. No movie-star looks, no soaring tenor or dazzling guitar licks. He didn’t need them. He saw truths that had never before occurred to us, and offered them up in a brand-new, loving way that could not be denied.”

“If dreams were lightning and thunder were desire, this old house would’ve burned down a long time ago.” Angel From Montgomery

Prine songs are never about being deep or philosophical though, at least not most of them — they’re about having fun, telling simple human stories. The kind you might think a smart mailman from a small town in Illinois (his parents were from Muehlenberg County in Kentucky, subject of the song Paradise) might put together while he was walking his route, which John did for six years before he landed a job singing at the Fifth Peg, a bar in Chicago. Second City was right across the street, and later Bill Murray would remember dropping in from time to time to see John play and how his songs helped Murray out of a dark place. Prine remembered during some shows John Belushi would come up on stage and sing along or act out the lyrics.

The Fifth Peg is where Kris Kristofferson came one night, because fellow musician Steve Goodman told him he had to see Prine, and that turned into a record deal. Movie critic Roger Ebert was so blown away he gave him his first review, instead of writing about the movie he had seen (“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. 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”). But John’s music wasn’t for prime-time, and he eventually formed his own label and did his own thing — the kind of songwriter that other singer/songwriters idolize and cover, as Bonnie Raitt famously did with “Angel From Montgomery.”

Later, Prine would tell Rolling Stone he was happy with the way things turned out in his career, despite not getting many big hits. “It’s not like I had one hit or two hits and they froze me in time. So, by being kind of obscure during the years, it’s helped me in a way. People thought I was their private family thing. They’d play me on car trips, and the kids, they’d learn my songs and they’d sing along in the car. It’s kind of like the way that original folk music was learned and passed on.” And late in his career, he started getting accolades and tributes from newer artists like Kacey Musgraves (who wrote a song about wanting to “burn one with John Prine”) as well as Jason Isbell, Bon Iver and Margo Price. There’s a great series of tribute videos here, including Nathaniel Rateliff, John Paul White, Phoebe Bridgers, Brandy Clark, Courtney Marie Andrews and Margo Price.

“That’s the way the world goes round — half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.” That’s the Way the World Goes Round

In 2016, at a special backstage session at the Grammy Awards, Prine recalled writing his song “Souvenirs” in the cab on the way down to his regular evening gig at the Fifth Peg, because he was afraid he didn’t have enough songs and the customers were going to get bored. “I thought I’d written a melody that was far more advanced, like with jazz chords or something, and then when I played it in the bathroom before the gig, I realized it was the same three chords I always use.”

He got cancer in 1998 and had to have part of his throat removed, which changed his voice a little, but he kept right on recording and playing and touring. And he kept right on doing all of that after a bout of lung cancer in 2013 as well. He came out with a new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, in 2018, and got some great reviews and played on Austin City Limits — where he was a guest six times. He had the launch party at a dive bar in Nashville, because it was one of his favorite places to hang out and just play some pool. And then he got COVID-19, and that was a fight he just couldn’t win. I will miss him, and I know millions of other music fans will as well. Here are some great performances, both by him and others:

In 2001, he played “Sam Stone” at an intimate live show called the Sessions at 54th Street in New York

He also did another one of my favorites there — “Far From Me,” which has the great line: “We used to laugh together, and dance to all the old songs; she still laughs with me, but she waits just a second too long.”

And this is probably one of the first times John Prine sang “Sam Stone” live, in 1972, on a local cable access “counterculture” TV show called Underground News. In another clip from the same show, he plays “Hello in There,” and mentions that he and Bob Dylan hung out and played Hank Williams songs at Carly Simon’s house, and that he heard later that Dylan had recorded a version of his song “Donald and Lydia.”

At some point in the 1970s or so, Prine played his song “Paradise” with John Burns on rhythm guitar and harmony, sitting on the lawn in front of the house where he grew up in Maywood, Illinois

Here’s a great long interview that John Prine did with Bobby Bare on his Nashville Network show in 1985, along with some playing. Partway through he is joined by the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

Elvis Costello did a great interview with John on his excellent show Spectacle, and he also wrote a touching tribute to him as well. He said that when he first met one of his oldest friends forty years ago “the condition of us becoming friends was that the other also loved John Prine. This was non-negotiable.” At the end of the show, Elvis played along with John, as well as Lyle Lovett and Ray LaMontagne, on a version of the Townes Van Zandt song “Loretta.”

Here’s another great old video of John Prine playing on a small stage in front of a couple of hundred people at a folk festival in 1986 in Nevada:

Brandi Carlile, who is a great singer-songwriter as well, played “Hello in There” in her living room as part of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert

And here’s a great version of “Hello in There” from a folk festival in Glasgow in 1990, sung by Michael Stipe of REM and Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs with Billy Bragg playing the guitar:

And not that I’m trying to claim that I’m in the same category as any of these amazing artists, but in memory of John I recorded myself in our basement playing “Sam Stone.” I screwed up the last couple of lines though — sorry John. I will make it up to you.

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