There was a hole left in the heart of country music when John Prine died. It’ll fill up again, of course, but there’ll forever be a beat missing in the singular rhythm of Nashville.
The songwriter’s songwriter, John Prine was the consummate pro who could craft a world into a three-minute tune. It was 1970 when celebrated US film critic Roger Ebert discovered “an extraordinary new composer and performer” when chancing upon an undiscovered folk singer in a small Chicago club. “Country-folk singers aren’t exactly putting rock out of business… but Prine is good,” wrote Ebert and the Illinois-born musician was off to the races. Catching the ear of Kris Kristofferson, the country rebel made it his business to produce Prine’s first eponymous album one year later for Atlantic Records and songs such as ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery’ immediately turned Prine into a player in Nashville and Memphis.
Country Legend: John Prine
“A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages,” Bruce Springsteen said upon Prine’s death and it was surely songs like ‘Sam Stone’ The Boss had in mind when celebrating the fallen song writing hero’s timeless melodies and piercing lyrics. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes” is the line from said song that fans and critics tend to focus on, but you can find the soul of John Prine’s music in another bittersweet turn of phrase from the same song: “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”
Prine’s tunes, particularly in the 1970s, were made for broken radios in kitchens, bedrooms and gas-guzzling Dodges across America and it was during that decade his reputation was made. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash became fans, Bonnie Raitt and Bette Midler covered his songs, and a stream of albums for Atlantic Records with such southern music legends as Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and the legendary Arif Mardin producing solidified his place at country music’s top table. Indeed, 1975’s ‘Common Sense’, featuring such long-time favourites as ‘Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard’ and ‘He Was In Heaven Before He Died’, even swam the mainstream into America’s Billboard Top 100.
The music only tells part of Prine’s story, however. He had always been a popular musician amongst his contemporaries, but as the 1980s dawned Prine also become a pioneer when he founded Oh Boy Records. Rejecting the malignant and marauding model the music industry had found itself entwined with in the ‘me’ decade that followed, Prine set Oh Boy up in Nashville in 1981 and hit upon the idea of going direct to his fans for an advance payment on his next album – and getting himself in the clear financially before starting down the road. It was a move the predicted a sea change in the music business by around thirty years and put Prine in a perfect position to ride the changes that came music’s way in the 80s and 90s and even saw superstars such as Johnny Cash dropped by their record label.
The second oldest artist-owned independent label in America, Oh Boy continues to go from strength to strength as Prine resisted all offers of a buy-out when the industry came calling. The hits may not have been as high on Oh Boy, but his work continued to attract interest everywhere and country supergroup The Highwayman had a hit with the Prine co-write ‘The 20th Century Is Almost Over’ in 1985.
John Prine’s third act is one of American music’s best-loved stories. It had been more than five years since his last studio album when Howie Epstein – bass player with the then-ubiquitous Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – came calling and turned Prine’s career around. “I’d heard for years that he would show up at my shows and I heard all the guys in The Heartbreakers played my stuff on the road,” Prine recalled. “So, my manager Al called Howie when we were looking for a new producer and before he could even hang up the phone, Howie was in the office! Four hours later, he was still there, talking to Al about my music…” ‘The Missing Years’ was the Grammy-winning record they would go on to produce and another fruitful collaboration was born for Prine.
With an all-star line-up in the studio, the album sounded fresh and brought new sounds to wrap themselves around the songwriter’s best set of songs in a long time. Prine’s ability to twist new melodies from age-old chord sequences came to the fore and songs such as ‘Picture Show’, ‘You Got Gold’ and ‘Jesus The Missing Years’ became firm favourites in the catalogue for years to come. The remainder of the 90s brought further records with Epstein, more covers from famous fans and a cover record all his own (featuring duets with artists such as Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris).
The late 80s and 90s were kind to Prine professionally, but tragedy struck privately in 1998 when the craftsmen was diagnosed with cancer in his neck. He recovered, but his small town urban vocals altered forever and those rural vowels he later became famous for first started to show up on such ‘comeback’ records as 2000’s ‘Souvenirs’ and 2005’s ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’ Grammy winner ‘Fair & Square’. Prine, now south of 50, was turning into an elder-statesmen as his influence on the burgeoning alt-country and Americana movements became obvious with each passing year. ‘Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine’ arrived in 2010 as the cream of America’s alternative crop lined up to pay tribute on record to their hero. Bon Iver, Drive-By Truckers, Lambchop and The Avett Brothers all contributed covers of their favourite Prine songs to the record and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) wrote the heartfelt liner notes that revealed what a labour of love the album had been for the musicians involved.
In 2018, Prine released his last album ‘The Tree Of Forgiveness’ to rave reviews. Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile all featured on the record and it was produced at RCA Studio A in Nashville by man-of-the-moment Dave Cobb, putting Prine back at the centre of contemporary country music. “The one thing I can’t remember about writing songs is just how simple it is,” he humbly revealed in an interview around the album’s release. Less than two years later, with our hero having passed in April 2020, reflecting on those words reveals just how hard the songwriter worked to alter the colour of listener’s minds whilst turning the water of mere words into the wine of Prine’s poetry. “His stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Bob Dylan has said. “All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy and ‘where people make love from ten miles away’… nobody but Prine could write like that.”
Behind The Song – ‘When I Get To Heaven’ (from ‘The Tree Of Forgiveness’, 2018)
Two-time Grammy winner John Prine was one of the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Grammys. It was the final invitation to the mainstream that the Americana hero always deserved – but you’ll find the truth of his work in songs, not awards. ‘When I Get To Heaven’ is one of the song writing hero’s latter-day laments and tells its tale treading softly upon a buoyant melody that invites you to a campfire sing-along. “And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale/ Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long,” goes the song’s familiar chorus and you can almost hear everyone below the The Mason–Dixon line joining in. Featuring the likes of Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile on backing vocals and kazoos (“you know what this song needs? Kazoos,” Prine told producer Dave Cobb during the recording), ‘When I Get To Heaven’ is a modern-day word-of-mouth hit that lights up concert halls and folk clubs wherever it is played. “You can hear my grandson giggling in the background if you listen really carefully,” Prine has revealed. “But we had such a good cut that we didn’t want to take it off there. To hear a kid, a baby, giggling when you’re talking about heaven… it all kinda’ made sense, you know?”