Singer-songwriter John Prine died yesterday in Nashville, Tennessee, due to complications from Covid-19. He was 73.
Prine was a mailman, a husband and father, a cancer survivor. He was also one of the finest songwriters to ever pick up a guitar. Early in his career, he was touted as the “next Bob Dylan,” until critics gave it up and realized he was, instead, the one and only John Prine.
His songs are devastating, funny, hopeful—sometimes all in the turn of a single phrase. They are stories of love and struggle, warts and all. When he veered into poetry, it was due to his unrelenting willingness to acknowledge the most disappointing flaws of humanity alongside its potential for stunning beauty. There is a literary quality to his songwriting, the way it captures the entirety of the human experience in such a concise way, while still managing to rhyme. Prine made it look easy—often the hardest thing to do.
His first performance was at an open mic night in Chicago in 1970, when he stood up and sung “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There”—two songs that have since become iconic symbols of what songwriting is capable of accomplishing. Kris Kristofferson was in the audience and later introduced Prine to an audience in New York City. Prine signed a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.
Nobody who encountered him in those days could come to grips with where these tremendous songs were coming from. Over time, fans became acquainted with the fact that this is just the kind of music John Prine makes.
He released his first album, John Prine, in 1971 and followed it with close to two dozen albums throughout the ensuing decades. He earned a dozen Grammy nominations and even won a few. Prine started his own record label, Oh Boy, in 1984.
His fans included pretty much anyone who ever took songwriting seriously, from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to younger folks like Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, and certainly legions of unknowns touring from bar to bar, driven by the potential profound nature of true stories set to music—something with which they became familiar thanks to Prine’s work.
They, along with Prine’s wife Fiona, his three sons, two brothers and three grandchildren, will no doubt be mourning this loss for weeks to come. Gratefully, we will always have the music.