John Prine, One of America’s Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73
Grammy-winning singer who combined literary genius with a common touch succumbs to coronavirus complications
John Prine, who for five decades wrote rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music, died Tuesday at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 73. The cause was complications related to COVID-19, his family confirmed to Rolling Stone.
Prine, who left behind an extraordinary body of folk-country classics, was hospitalized last month after the sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, and was placed in intensive care for 13 days. Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona, announced on March 17th that she had tested positive for the virus after they had returned from a European tour.
As a songwriter, Prine was admired by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and others, known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience. There’s “Hello in There,” about the devastating loneliness of an elderly couple; “Sam Stone,” a portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam soldier suffering from PTSD; and “Paradise,” an ode to his parents’ strip-mined hometown of Paradise, Kentucky, which became an environmental anthem. Prine tackled these subjects with empathy and humor, with an eye for “the in-between spaces,” the moments people don’t talk about, he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan said in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”
Prine was also an author, actor, record-label owner, two-time Grammy winner, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the recipient of the 2016 PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, a honor previously given to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Prine helped shape the Americana genre that has gained popularity in recent years, with the success of Prine fans such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carilie, to name a few. His music was covered by Bonnie Raitt (who popularized “Angel From Montgomery,” his soulful ballad about a woman stuck in a hopeless marriage), George Strait, Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Maura O’Connell, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Todd Snider, Carl Perkins, Bette Midler, Gail Davies, and dozens of others.
Though he was an underground singer-songwriter for most of his career, Prine had a remarkable final act. In 2018, he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of original material in 13 years. The album went to Number Five on the Billboard200, the highest debut of his career, and he played some of his biggest shows ever, including a sold-out tour kickoff at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The album was released on Oh Boy Records, the independent label Prine started with his longtime manager, business partner, and friend Al Bunetta. In recent years, Prine, his wife, and son Jody ran the label out of a small Nashville home office.
Prine’s string of acclaimed solo albums began with his self-titled 1971 debut on Atlantic Records, featuring a tracklist that reads like a greatest-hits compilation: “Illegal Smile,” “Spanish Pipedream,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and “Angel From Montgomery” among them. Throughout his career, Prine explored a wide variety of musical styles, from hard country to rockabilly to bluegrass; he liked to say that he tried to live in a space somewhere between his heroes Johnny Cash and Dylan.
Prine was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois. His father was a tool and die maker and the president of the local steelworkers union, and raised John and his three brothers on the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and other heroes of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Though he was a poor student, Prine was a natural songwriter; two songs he wrote when he was 14, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan,” ended up on his LP Diamonds in the Rough, more than 10 years later. Prine had a restless imagination — “I would go to class and just stare at something like a button on the teacher’s shirt,” he said — but he excelled at hobbies he focused on, like gymnastics, which he was inspired to take up by his older brother, Doug. “Here was something I had no natural ability in, and I could do it well,” Prine said.
After graduating high school in 1964, Prine took the advice of his oldest brother, Dave, and became a mailman. Wandering around the Chicago suburbs, Prine wrote many of his classic early songs. During his postman years, he wrote “Donald and Lydia,” about a couple who “make love from 10 miles away,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a humorous indictment of misguided patriotism, after he noticed that locals were posting American flag decals that were included in an issue of Reader’s Digest around the neighborhood.
Prine was forced to take a hiatus from his postal career when he was drafted into the Army in late 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. But instead of being sent to Vietnam, Prine lucked out and was sent to Stuttgart, West Germany, where he worked as a mechanical engineer. Prine played down his military service, describing his contribution as “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks,” as he told Rolling Stone. But the experience did bring him to write maybe his greatest song: “Sam Stone.” The ballad is about a soldier who comes home from the war mentally shattered, turning to morphine to ease the pain. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” Prine sings in the chorus, “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”
“I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018.“And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’ ” When Johnny Cash covered the song, he rewrote the chorus, changing “Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” (“If it hadn’t have been Johnny Cash,” Prine said, “I would’ve said, ‘Are you nuts?’”)
Prine became an immediate sensation on the Chicago folk scene. On the day before his 24th birthday, he was performing at Chicago’s Fifth Peg when the now-iconic Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert walked in. Ebert’s headline, ‘Singing Mailman Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words,’ led to sold-out rooms. Soon, Prine’s friend and musical partner Steve Goodman convinced Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka to drop by to see Prine play at the Earl of Old Town in the summer of 1971.
“It was too damned late, and we had an early wake-up ahead of us, and by the time we got there, Old Town was nothing but empty streets and dark windows,” Kristofferson later wrote in the liner notes for Prine’s first album. “And the club was closing. But the owner let us come in, pulled some chairs off a couple of tables, and John unpacked his guitar and got back up to sing. … By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.”