John Prine, the beloved singer-songwriter who chronicled humanity in emotionally affecting tunes that became classics of his genre, died Tuesday, April 7, of COVID-19 complications at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 73. Prine, who had lost part of a lung to cancer in 2013, had been placed in intensive care after developing double-lung pneumonia, and had been breathing with a ventilator since March 28. He passed away one day after the 24th anniversary of his 1996 wedding to Fiona Whelan Prine, who was also his manager.
Revered by peers and fans alike for his ability to paint richly detailed, unforgettable portraits with a few simple words, Prine wrote lyrics that could be warm and witty or absolutely heartbreaking — sometimes simultaneously. His songs could turn even the saddest or most damaged humans — an addicted, PTSD-ravaged war veteran, a woman stuck in a long-dead marriage, a lonely senior wishing old age hadn’t rendered him invisible — into sympathetic characters worthy of acknowledgement, and maybe even respect. Sometimes, he’d hone verses into spring-loaded arrows, waiting to pierce hypocrites — like war-mongering faux patriots — with well-aimed zingers. Prine also turned romantic relationships into playful jousting matches, murdered children into metaphors for a broken marriage, and a summons home at summer’s end into the suggestion of a far greater journey. After battling health issues including neck cancer in 1998, heart surgery in 2019 and hip surgery in February, he took that journey Tuesday.
His self-titled debut album, released in 1971, was included on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list and placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. It contains six of the top 10 most performed (and frequently covered) songs in his repertoire, including “Angel from Montgomery,” which became his friend Bonnie Raitt’s signature tune. She serenaded him with it in January at the 2020 Grammy Awards after he received a Lifetime Achievement Award, and they performed it together at the September 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards in Nashville after Prine won Song of the Year for “Summer’s End,” written with Pat McLaughlin, and Album of the Year for the album on which it appeared, The Tree of Forgiveness. The 2018 release, his first collection of original material since 2005’s Grammy-winning Fair and Square, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart and No. 2 on the Country Albums chart — the highest rankings of his 48-year recording career.
The Americana Music Association also gave Prine Artist of the Year awards in 2005, 2017 and 2018. When announcing that 2018 award, co-emcee Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids said, “There is literally no one else who is more on our minds when we write a song.” Brandy Clark based “Who You Thought I Was,” a song on her new album, on a line Prine delivered in his 2017 acceptance speech. After receiving a standing ovation, he had said, “Thanks, but I sure wish I could go back to being who you thought I was.”
Who we — his public — thought he was, was a man enjoying a late-chapter resurgence and well-earned recognition after a career spent as a “songwriter’s songwriter” — like fellow Nashvillian John Hiatt, an artist who’s considered a Mt. Rushmore-worthy figure in the folk/Americana/roots music pantheon, but underappreciated by the world at large.
Though Prine himself wasn’t as renowned as some of his songs, he’s been cited as a favorite by giants from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson (who helped Prine secure his first record deal) to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and younger-generation acolytes Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile (all of whom contributed to The Tree of Forgiveness). Jeffrey Foucault recorded an entire album of Prine tunes, Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes: The Songs of John Prine; another tribute album, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine, was released in 2010 on Prine’s own Oh Boy Records label.
Bette Midler became associated with “Hello in There,” about the loneliness and resignation that accompanies old age, after recording it on her platinum-selling debut, The Divine Miss M; Joan Baez, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M. and David Allen Coe are among others who did versions. “Paradise,” Souvenirs” and “Sam Stone,” three other tracks from John Prine, also rank among his most-covered songs. Nanci Griffith, Kasey Chambers and the band Alabama 3 are among those who recorded another famous song, “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”
Prine earned the first of his two Grammys (and fourth of 11 nominations) for 1991’s The Missing Years, which featured a virtual who’s who of worshippers including Raitt, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Everly. John Mellencamp cowrote one of its tracks.
An unassuming, charmingly self-effacing performer, Prine’s appeal was partly due to his down-to-earth nature. He was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago, after his parents had moved there from Paradise, Ky., in the heart of coal country. (That town would inspire one of his best-known songs.) Prine’s father worked at the American Can Co., where he became a union organizer. A fan of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubbs and other classic country artists, William Prine instilled that love in his sons. John also became attracted to Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt, both of whom inspired him to begin playing guitar. His oldest brother, Dave, taught him the basics, then gave him a Carter Family album to study.
Prine began writing songs at 14, but never intended to pursue it as a career. Drafted during the Vietnam War, he served for two years in Germany. When he returned, he got a job as a mail carrier. Songwriting, he said, was a hobby — until he accepted a dare after criticizing various performers while attending an open-mic night at a Chicago club. Once he played, he was offered a regular gig and began appearing each Thursday night.
In a 2018 interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, Prine explained how the late Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times film critic, had walked out on a film and, thirsty from salty theater popcorn, decided to grab a beer. He popped into the nearest pub, and was told to go hear the kid playing in the back room. Prine, not the unworthy film, wound up getting a full-page review in that Friday’s entertainment section.
“I never had an empty seat after that,” Prine told Gross. He began playing three nights a week, two shows apiece, with lines outside. That was in late 1970. By early 1971, he’d signed a contract with Atlantic Records. His debut album came out that August.
Prine released four albums on Atlantic before moving to Asylum Records, where he released three more. In 1981, Prine and his manager, Al Bunetta, decided to form an independent label, Oh Boy Records. By then, Prine had moved to Nashville, where Oh Boy would become the oldest artist-owned independent label operating in that city, and the second oldest in the country, according to its website. Todd Snider released four albums on his mentor’s label, including East Nashville Skyline.
Prine continued to collect accolades, including induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2005, he became the first singer-songwriter to perform at the Library of Congress, and in 2016, he received the PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award.
After Bunetta died in 2015, Fiona Prine became her husband’s manager. On March 17, she announced she had tested positive for COVID-19 after accompanying Prine on a European tour. They sequestered themselves separately, but Prine fill ill from the virus and was hospitalized on March 26.
In addition to his wife, Prine is survived by sons Tommy and Jack — and legions of songwriters who cite Prine’s work as the main inspiration for their own.