In Remembrance: John Prine, 1946-2020

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Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He was 73.

The cause was due to complications from Covid-19, according to his family.

Part of John Prine’s brilliance was how easy he made it all seem. With some songwriters, you can hear the effort and strain put into every line, and it can become wearisome. But Prine seemed to come about it so humbly and naturally that you could believe, since you had access to the same language and the same chords on an acoustic guitar, that you could be as wise, as funny, as heart-rending as he could.

Of course, you couldn’t. When you step back and look at his songwriting catalog, John Prine’s is as imposing as they come. Think about it: The first three songs that he sang on a live stage in front of an audience were “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There,” and “Paradise.” Most artists would give their career for such a trio; Prine was just getting warmed up.

His road to that point wasn’t the typical one for music stardom. He was a soldier and a mailman before he emerged from Chicago with his debut album in 1971. That self-titled release cemented him as a fully-formed songwriting powerhouse. 

It included that lofty trio: “Sam Stone,” which touched on a veteran’s sad yet inevitable post-Vietnam demise years before people even speculated on what fate would befall soldiers returning from that war; “Hello In There,” which spoke touchingly about elderly neglect, not exactly the stuff of pop songs before or since; and “Paradise,” an unflinching look at nostalgia’s futile fight against progress. Then there was “Illegal Smile,” “Donald And Lydia,” “Far From Me,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and on and on. Few debut albums of any genre can match it for versatility and songwriting excellence.

Prine’s songs were so complete that they didn’t need any adornment to hit home. It also made them unlikely to do any damage on the charts. But other musicians quickly realized their bona fides, and the tracks off the John Prine album quickly became fodder for cover versions from a wide array of artists. 

Meanwhile, Prine kept on churning out albums that built off the foundation of the debut. “The Great Compromise” from Diamonds In The Rough continued to pick at the wounds of Vietnam; Sweet Revenge subtly rocked and contains one of his funniest songs, “Dear Abby”; on Common Sense, he had fun with the generation gap in “Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard,”; the title track for Bruised Orange segued from a tragedy Prine remembered from his childhood into a profound meditation on sadness; and so on throughout the decade.

His releases became more sporadic; it ever an artist was unsuited for the excess of the 80’s, it was Prine. But the quality of the work never wavered. He enjoyed the early 90’s comeback album that many of his era who had flailed a bit during the 80s did, thanks to the Heartbreaker-filled The Missing Years in 1991. And he proved one of the world’s most charming duet partners on 1999’s In Spite Of Ourselves, as he and Iris DeMent turned the title track into one of most romantic warts-and-all songs of all time.

Prine twice beat cancer, with the first bout forever changing his vocals, which had always been deadpan and unshowy, into a gravelly wonder. His live performances constantly reminded everyone both of his incredible songbook and of his boundless charisma; contemporary and younger artists revered him; and awards and honors came in with regularity. Through it all, his avuncular image and genuine gratitude for his career made him the most relatable genius around.

Just two years ago, Prine returned with his first original album in 13 years. The Tree Of Forgiveness included guests like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Dan Auerbach, and Brandi Carlisle, but Prine still stole the show. The heartbreak of “Summer’s End” and the feistiness of “When I Get To Heaven” proved that he hadn’t lost anything off his fastball in 47 years, put him, against all odds, in the Top 5 of the Billboard album charts, and lent hopes that it would be just the beginning of a late-period surge.

That was obviously not to be. But John Prine doesn’t owe us anything. If you were a fan of his, you tended to proselytize about him, telling anybody who would listen about how great he was. It’s not too late to do that. Even though his catalog is finite now in terms of songs and albums, the quality waiting within it is infinite, and it’s waiting to be discovered by generations to come.

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