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John Prine dies at 73; acclaimed folksinger, songwriter created classics of lyricism and storytelling

Bob Dylan once said, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

This June 15, 2019 file photo shows John Prine performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. AP Photos

John Prine’s lyrics were like Edward Hopper paintings.

His songs conjured empty Greyhound stations, pawnshops, rusty railroad tracks, flies in the kitchen and nights with too much tequila. They were populated by hobos and lonely people staring out of back-door screens. After he got out of the Army, he wrote “Sam Stone” about a shattered veteran who had “a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

But there were also rollicking numbers peopled with characters named “Iron Ore Betty” and lines like, “She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs/Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs.”

Mr. Prine, the Maywood mailman who became a star of Chicago’s 1970s folk scene and one of the nation’s most treasured singer-songwriters — and who survived neck cancer in 1998 and a bout of lung cancer in 2013 — died Tuesday of complications of the coronavirus at 73, his family said.

He was hospitalized last month at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

His wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, had posted on Facebook on March 17 that she’d tested positive for the coronavirus and that members of his family were isolating from each other for protection. She said wasn’t sure where she picked it up, but that she and her husband had been in Europe the previous month.

On March 29, the family revealed Mr. Prine himself had the virus and said “his situation is critical.” Upon hearing of his illness, Bette Midler tweeted, “He is a genius and a huge soul.”

Mr. Prine’s death brought statements of loss from stars in and out of the music world.

“With a heavy heart, but deep love and gratitude for his gift he gave us all- Goodbye, John Prine,” Stephen Colbert tweeted.

Toby Keith said Mr. Prine “showed me how to ‘let it rip’ when it comes to songwriting. There’s a huge hole in the music world tonight. John did it best.”

“Just give me one thing I can hold on to,” wrote Roseanne Cash. “I’m just heartbroken.”

Mr. Prine was born in Maywood and graduated in 1965 from Proviso East High School and took lessons at the Old Town School of Music, where his brother Dave taught banjo. But Mr. Prine’s songs had the drawl of his parents: Chicago emigres from the mining town of Paradise, Kentucky, where, he wrote in a song:

Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River

To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill

the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols

But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.

His origin story was linked to Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert and singer-songwriters Paul Anka and Kris Kristofferson.

Ebert was said to have discovered the “singing mailman” when he ducked into the Fifth Peg nightclub. He teased out Mr. Prine’s story in a 1970 interview including his debut at the 1969 Maywood Folk Music Festival and a grandfather who “was a miner, a part-time preacher, and used to play guitar with Merle Travis and Ike Everly (the Everly brothers’ father).”

The following year, Mr. Prine performed at The Earl of Old Town for Anka and Kristofferson, who both arrived at the urging of Prine’s friend, folksinger Steve Goodman. “Within 24 hours,” the Sun-Times reported, “Prine was flown to New York, where he sat in with Kristofferson and Carly Simon at the Bitter End. Atlantic Records released his first album shortly thereafter.”

Mr. Prine described the evening with Anka and Kristofferson for The Tennessean.

That night, a taxi pulled up in front of the dank old Earl, and out bounded Goodman, Kristofferson, actress Samantha Eggar and singer Paul Anka (who had been at the Quiet Night to hear Kristofferson).

”I’d had a few beers, and it was just me and the waitresses and a couple of the kitchen guys,” Prine said. “I was waiting to get paid. Goodman had a grin from ear-to-ear, ‘cause he’d put the whole thing together. They took the chairs off this table and sat down.

”Now that I think back on it, it was a real movie setting kind of thing. Kris Kristofferson . . . right there at the Earl, listening to me. And think about how unselfish that was of Goodman, to pour all his attention on me. But that’s exactly the way he was: He wouldn’t have passed the chance up to go show his buddy off, you know.”

Prine played some songs, and then Kristofferson asked him to sing them again, and any other songs he wanted to play.

Even though the folk scene in other cities started to wither as musicians “traded in their banjos, guitars and dulcimers for amps and electric guitars,” Chicago was still bursting with talent in the late ’60s and early ’70s, according to folksinger Ed Holstein. Second City stars like John Belushi and Joe Flaherty would leave their theater and walk over to the Earl to enjoy a set. Holstein said Flaherty once told him he thought the era compared to “Paris in the ’20s.”

Still, Mr. Prine stood out. Holstein remembers being wowed by Mr. Prine when he played an open mic night at the Fifth Peg in 1969.

“He sang these songs and I remember thinking, ‘My God,’ ’’ Holstein said. “His songs were so good and they were so different.”

John Prine performs in 1979.
Sun-Times file

His music has been recorded by artists including Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Miranda Lambert, Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon and George Strait, according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2019.

Bob Dylan extolled Mr. Prine’s gifts in a 2009 interview with journalist Bill Flanagan: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’ the soldier junkie daddy and ‘Donald and Lydia,’ where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

In a 1975 WFMT interview with Studs Terkel, Mr. Prine described how he wrote the song about the addicted veteran, “Sam Stone.”

“I had ‘that sweet songs never last too long on broken radios’ and ‘there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes’. . . after I had that, those two lines, the rest of the song just poured out.”

Another song, “Spanish Pipedream,” starts off:

She’s a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol

And I was just a soldier on the way to Montreal.

“I figure if I can’t get a song out of that,” Mr. Prine told Terkel, “I couldn’t write any more.”

Ebert marveled at his “poetic economy” In the transcendent “Angel from Montgomery,” where “he tells of a few minutes in the thoughts of a woman who is doing the housework and thinking of her husband: ‘How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, and have nothing to say?’ ”

Winner of a lifetime achievement Grammy earlier this year, he earlier won Grammys for best contemporary folk album in 1992 for “The Missing Years” and in 2006 for “Fair & Square.”

John Prine accepts his award for best contemporary folk album during the 48th Annual Grammy Awards in 2006.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

He was a hero and inspiration to many contemporary artists. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys told The Tennessean he bought a Cadillac because of Mr. Prine.

“One of the days we were writing, I had some dumb a— old truck, and Prine pulls up in this Cadillac and was like, ‘Do you wanna go to White Castle?’ And we jumped in and it was like I was instantly on vacation,” Auerbach said. “I was like. . .Why don’t I have one of these?’ It changed my whole mindset.”

Kacey Musgraves — who wrote the song “John Prine” with the chorus “My idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine’’ — said her lyrics were influenced by his spare style.

“I really had never heard songs that were so conversational and so simple, but really poignant and not in an overdone, overstated, overly poetic way,” Musgraves said in an interview with bittersoutherner.com. It was literally as conversational as you could get.”

Jim James of My Morning Jacket admired his empathy. “I had never heard anything so humorous and kind, yet deeply moving, and I had never experienced day-to-day reality described in such a poetic and psychedelic way,” he told bittersoutherner.com. ”John is a master at helping us see everyday things in life in greater detail, and I really believe he’s helped us appreciate life, savor its details, and help us find beauty in everyday things that are easily overlooked.”

Mary Gauthier told the Tennessean about playing “Sam Stone” for a group of biker Vietnam vets and moving them to tears. “That song tore through us,” she said.

“People would sing ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling,’ but when ‘Sam Stone’ came … everybody shut up,” she said. “Nothing against the Eagles, but nobody was cryin’ over ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.’ ”

Miranda Lambert told bittersoutherner.com what he meant to her. “I think the first time I ever really ‘felt’ a song was when I was about 9 years old, and my dad played me ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Hello in There’ on his guitar. Even though I didn’t know at the time exactly what all the lyrics meant, I knew something inside me was moved.”

“Hello in There” is a meditation on aging and loneliness. One verse goes:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes,

Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare

As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”

During a 2010 homecoming show in Maywood, Mr. Prine recounted how the song grew out of his newspaper route for the Chicago Daily News. When he’d drop papers off at a Maywood nursing home, he remembered the residents who had no company.

”They would pretend we were grandchildren or nephews who came to visit,” Mr. Prine said.

His song “Mexican Home” was inspired by memories of his father sitting out on their Maywood porch.

My father died on the porch outside

On an August afternoon

I sipped bourbon and cried

With a friend by the light of the moon

So it’s hurry! hurry! Step right up

It’s a matter of life or death

The sun is going down

And the moon is just holding its breath.

Contributing: AP