2019 SHOF inductee John Prine, who established himself as one of America’s deftest and most affecting singer-songwriters over the course of a nearly 50-year career, died Tuesday of complications of coronavirus. He was 73.
In a career spanning almost 50 years, two-time Grammy-winner John Prine has penned and performed such significant songs as “Sam Stone,” “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” “Hello In There,” “Illegal Smile,” “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round,” “Lake Marie,” “Fish and Whistle,” “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness,” “In Spite of Ourselves” and “I Just Want To Dance With You.” These and many others brought him induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
Born in 1946 in suburban Chicago, Prine started playing guitar at 14 and took classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Working as a mailman before and after serving in the Army, he began his music career in Chicago in the late 1960s, where he sang at open mic events at the Fifth Peg folk club and was part of a thriving folk revival scene also including the likes of Steve Goodman (he co-wrote Goodman’s classic “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” but isn’t credited), Bonnie Koloc and Jim Post. He also played other important venues like the Earl of Old Town and the Quiet Knight, and received his first rave review when Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert saw him at the Fifth Peg.
Prine was only 23 and had been playing his original songs there every Thursday night for two months. In short order, future Songwriters Hall of Famer Kris Kristofferson gave him a spot at a show in New York, where he attracted record company interest. His self-titled 1971 debut album notably yielded “Sam Stone” (which has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash), “Hello in There” (Bette Midler among others), “Angel from Montgomery” (most prominently Bonnie Raitt) and “Paradise” (many artists including John Denver). He has since been covered, too, by such artists as Zac Brown Band, David Allan Coe, Carly Simon, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert and George Strait, and he has replicated Kristofferson’s kindness by having young singer-songwriters like Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson open his concerts.
In 2014, his John Prine debut album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Two years later he received the PEN/New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award. He was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association in 2017.
Prine co-founded his indie label Oh Boy Records in 1981. Now Nashville’s longest-operating indie label, Oh Boy published Prine’s Beyond Words book of lyrics, guitar charts, vintage photos and personal anecdotes in 2017. In 2018 he released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new songs since 2005. It earned three more Grammy nominations: Americana Album and two American Roots Song entries—“Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” and “Summer’s End,” both co-written with Pat McLaughlin.
Prine is survived by his wife Fiona Whelan and their sons Tommy and Jack.