John Prine’s Influence on 3 Top Contemporary Folk-Rock and Americana Artists

John Prine had music inside him at all times. It wasn’t something he turned on and off when it was time to write or perform. He loved to dance, and backstage he could be seen bobbing his head or humming a tune. 

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Prine was the perfect conduit for writing clearly about what it means to be human. This work requires searching the dark corners of the soul to get at the truth. He made it look easy.

The characters in Prine’s songs always felt alive. Three-dimensional and vivid, his stories never felt like fiction. His narration was so clean, it felt like a memoir. 

His popularity and commercial success didn’t match his contribution to modern songwriting. In 1981, he started his own record label, Oh Boy Records. Prine operated outside the machine of the music business. Without a major label, there was no friction between Prine and his fans. 

Understanding Prine’s influence is as easy as looking at his descendants. Prine’s impact is felt across all of American music. Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, and Nathaniel Rateliff are just a few of the impactful so-called “Americana” artists who share and revere Prine’s independent and empathic songwriting. 

Prine was tagged as “the next Dylan,” but Bob Dylan was a John Prine fan. The three artists below won’t be given the unreasonable burden of becoming “the next Prine.” Through their work, they’ve collectively said, “We’ll take it from here, John.”

Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriters in America. The gift Isbell received from John Prine is the ability to find poetry in plain language. 

So girl, leave your boots by the bed
We ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help
Or the magnolias bloom

If a song like “Cover Me Up” doesn’t raise the hair on your arms, you might be the one needing medical attention. Isbell writes with clarity about his own dark reality when he sings, Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond on high. Most people hide the worst version of themselves. It takes a special kind of bravery to commit it to tape. This is a man confronting a demon. And when the demon is “you,” it can only be slayed with the truth. 

Tyler Childers

Another Prine descendant is Kentucky’s Tyler Childers. The roots of bluegrass and Appalachia run deep in his music. He’s like a journalist on the ground—finding beauty in the weeds—reporting from the inside against Southern stereotypes that have been engrained from the outside. But Childers isn’t a journalist, he’s a poet. And history has relied on poets to write honestly in a dishonest world. 

[RELATED: 5 Artists Who Covered John Prine Songs and Made Them Their Own]

He also shares Prine’s wry humor. Writing about life’s everyday absurdities sometimes requires turning the mirror around to face the author, as in Childers’ “Feathered Indians“:

If I’d known she was religious
Then I wouldn’t have came stoned
To the house of such an angel
Too fucked up to get back home

“Feathered Indians” is titled after the belt buckle impressions on the inside of her thighwhere we tussled through the night

John Prine was smart and poignant, and both those adjectives are required to be funny. And comedy isn’t just a way to pass the time; it’s a teacher. 

Brandi Carlile

Americana is a sub-genre covering all kinds music, really. It can be a mixture of country, folk, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass, soul, or rhythm and blues. Some used to call it “alt-country.” Americana by its former name was a place for the descendants of Gram Parsons. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar could mix country music and punk rock into a band called Uncle Tupelo, for instance. 

Brandi Carlile has been associated with Americana music, too. Music genres, by definition, are a limitation. It’s a way to categorize something. Box it in and make it easier to digest or explain. But Brandi Carlile isn’t someone who can be fenced in. 

I climbed across the mountain tops
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines and I broke all the rules
But baby, I broke them all for you

Carlile has John Prine’s gift of being able to make it look easy. The above lyrics from her “The Story” use well-worn imagery. There’s nothing there that hasn’t already been said—until you listen to Carlile sing it. The delivery is something that cannot be taught. There aren’t enough vocal lessons in the world to teach this. “The Story” is pure DNA. This is finding the thing that exists inside. It’s the same expression as the sound of John Prine singing “Angel from Montgomery.”

If dreams were thunder
And lightnin’ was desire
This old house would’ve burnt down
A long time ago

In 1966, Prine was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served his country as a mechanic. He worked as a mailman. Then his job became “songwriter.” Instead of delivering the mail, Prine delivered reflections on the human condition. He traded fixing engines for fixing hearts. 

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for The Green Room

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