The Primest Prine

John Prine, one of the greatest architects of Americana music, passes away from COVID-19

John Prine (Art: Ron Hart)

There’s no one individual who can claim to have singlehandedly kickstarted the genre we now refer to as Americana, but there’s no one who helped actually nudge it along more effectively than John Prine.

Prine, who died Tuesday at age 73 from complications related to the coronavirus, is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — songwriters of his generation and in turn, a chief architect of American music in general. 

Indeed, there are few songwriters who have been as widely covered — the only other one who comes to mind is Dylan, but then Dylan, who was known to be an admirer, had at least a decade or so head start on the man who was initially labeled one of the so-called “New Dylans” early on. It was a meaningless attempt at a complement, but it underscored the fact that in terms of narratives and songs that found emotional assurance and a decided sanctity of the human spirit, Prine was one of those who set a new standard. 

“Over here on E Street, we are crushed by the loss of John Prine. John and I were ‘New Dylans’ together in the early 70s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world,” Bruce Springsteen, who came to prominence at the same time, tweeted on hearing of Prine’s passing. “A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages. We send our love and prayers to his family.”

His songs are considered classics, and rightfully so. Watching Prine and Bonnie Raitt team up for “Angel From Montgomery,” a song she helped make famous, at the Americana Awards show last year was a singular event, a moment that now will be etched in time. Their shared ownership of the song, which elevated both artists to national prominence.

 

VIDEO: Bonnie Raitt and John Prine perform “Angel From Montgomery” at the 2019 Americana Awards

“Words can’t even come close,” Raitt tweeted, trying to contain her emotions. “I’m crushed by the loss of my dear friend, John. My heart and love go out to Fiona and all the family. For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Indeed, Prine’s songs were vivid and personal, reflecting in his inherent down home demeanor with a wisdom and knowing sensibility that’s universal in its expression and appeal.

Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, may have expressed it best.

“From a mold now broken, John Prine was a walking, grinning argument for human beings as a pretty good species,” he said.In Johns songs, humor and heartache dance together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. His words and melodies draw chuckles and blood, and tears of sorrow and redemption, all leading to truths widely known but never before articulated. Johns mind was a treasure chest, open to us all. We mourn his passing, even as we hold the treasure.”

A native of Maywood Illinois, Prine first took to guitar at age 14 before enrolling in the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. He went on to serve in the army, and after relocating to Chicago following his discharge, he became a postal carrier, writing songs as a hobby and earning himself the nickname of “the singing mailman.” He was later discovered by Kris Kristofferson — though Prine himself credited film critic Roger Ebert — and none other that Atlantic Records founder Arif Mardin produced Prine’s eponymous debut. It was that initial album that firmly established Prine’s prowess early on, given that it boasted several songs that would remain among his many calling cards throughout his career — ‘Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” and “Illegal Smile,” among them. Each featured an insular individual at the heart of the narrative, evoking both emotion and empathy for those who were often ignored. The lyric to “Sam Stone” spoke volumes: “Theres a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.”

RIP John Prine (Art: Ron Hart)

Prine recorded for three record companies throughout his career, beginning with Atlantic Records before moving to Asylum, one of the hubs of the ‘70s singer/songwriter movement. Encouraged by his friend Steve Goodman, he formed his own his own label, Oh Boy, which, along with Goodman’s Red Pajamas Records, became a template for independent record companies when the idea of taking on the majors was concerned risky and rare.

Nevertheless, each album that Prine released thereafter was reason for ongoing anticipation, all affirming his remarkable reputation as a songwriters songwriter and a ready source of material for scores of artists who looked to him not only as a master songsmith, but as a revered influence and inspiration as well. That singular status was reflected in the wealth of awards he received throughout his nearly half century career — a trio of Grammys, including, most recently a Lifetime Achievement Award, the PEN Song Lyrics Award, ongoing honors from the Americana Music Association, inclusion at an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and special recognition from the Library of Congress, where he became the first musician asked to perform. In the late ‘90s, Prine faced a grave health issue, a squamous cell cancer in his neck which forced him to go through major surgery and six weeks of radiation therapy. In 2013, he had part of his left lung removed to contain the cancer that was still lodged within. After a strict rehab and rehabilitation, he was back on tour in six months. 

Prine’s final album, and first original effort in 13 years, was unanimously acclaimed The Tree of Forgiveness. It featured an array of distinguished guest artists — Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, among them —  and received three Grammy nominations, high ranking on the Billboard album charts and Album of the Year kudos at the Americana Awards ceremony in 2018. 

On March 26, Prine announced that he was a victim of COVID-19 after his wife and manager Fiona said that she had contracted the illness. He remained in stable condition with hopes that his condition would improve. Despite being on a ventilator, it was discovered he had pneumonia in both lungs and other peripheral issues that made it difficult to breathe. He died on Monday, April 7, an unshakeable tragedy that has the music world in mourning.

The following day, Oh Boy Records made an official announcement. “It is with heavy hearts we have to share this sad news. Some of you may have already heard, but we wanted to take the time to let you know personally, and to say thank you. Thank you so much for all the well wishes, thoughts, prayers, stories, and songs. They helped us keep going through this tough time, and they will continue to bring us comfort. Thank you for your love and support of John all these years. We know that it is what kept him going. He absolutely loved what he did, and he loved all of you.”

 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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