John Prine, the ruggedly individualistic, fiercely populist songwriter and early pioneer in what would become the Americana music movement, died of coronavirus this past Tuesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 73.
Vital to the end, Prine had a tour planned for this year. One of the first artists to successfully break from a big record label to play live and record independently, Prine’s influence over several generations of songwriters was vast. A brilliant lyricist, nimble guitarist and wryly laconic raconteur, Prine chronicled the struggles of working-class Americans with sardonic humor and empathy as they confronted the ugly unattainability of the American Dream. Esteemed by his peers, artists as diverse as Elvis Costello and Steve Earle cited Prine as a formative influence.
Prine got his start in Chicago in the late 1960s while working there as a mailman. During one particular harsh winter, he would take shelter inside mailboxes, where he wrote several of his most popular songs. With the surrealism of Dylan, the aphoristic, down-home sensibility of honkytonk and a defiant workingman’s politics, he had a soft spot for old people and spoke out articulately against the Vietnam War. He could spot a hypocrite a mile away.
Many of his songs – the antiwar anthem Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, the Vietnam veteran chronicle Sam Stone, and Hello in There, the hardscrabble tale of an old couple in the heartland becoming more and more atomized – have become iconic in Americana circles. Among songwriters, simply knowing who Prine is gives you instant cred; being able to cover his songs is even better. Not many did: the most famous one was Bonnie Raitt’s version of Angel From Montgomery, the closest thing Prine ever had to a radio hit.
As the years went by, Prine’s drawling baritone became more weathered: he always sounded twenty years older than he was. And his songwriting never diminished, as he shifted toward rock in the 90s and then a return to his original acoustic sound in this century. Two key albums from his deep catalog include the pseudo-greatest-hits collection Prime Prine, from 1976 and the 2011 archival release The Singing Mailman Delivers, a collection of many of his best-known songs made on the fly at a Chicago radio station.
Prine could be hilarious: give a listen to Illegal Smile, a sly weedhead tale from his 1973 album Sweet Revenge, where the record label tried to recast him as an outlaw country singer, with mixed results: no wonder Prine would go independent. He could also be very, very dark, as you can hear in Down By the Side of the Road, a chilling highway tale from his 1978 Bruised Orange album.
He is greatly missed. Deepest condolences to the Prine family and his many friends.