John Prine, the ingenious singer-songwriter who explored the heartbreaks, indignities and absurdities of everyday life in â€œAngel from Montgomery,â€ â€œSam Stone,â€ â€œHello in Thereâ€ and scores of other indelible tunes, died Tuesday at the age of 73.
His family announced his death from complications from the coronavirus; he died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
His wife Fiona said last month that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and she has since recovered, but her husband was hospitalized on March 26 with coronavirus symptoms. He was put on a ventilator and remained in the intensive care unit for several days.
Winner of a lifetime achievement Grammy earlier this year, Prine was a virtuoso of the soul, if not the body. He sang his conversational lyrics in a voice so rough that even he didn’t like the sound all that much, until it was softened by the throat cancer surgery that disfigured his jaw late in life.
He joked that he fumbled so often on the guitar, taught to him as a teenager by his older brother, that people thought he was inventing a new style. But his open-heartedness, eye for detail and sharp and surreal humor brought him the highest admiration from critics, from such peers as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, and from such younger stars as Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, who even named a song after him.
In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed him â€œThe Mark Twain of American songwriting.â€
Prine began playing as a young Army veteran who invented songs to fight boredom while delivering the U.S. mail in Maywood, Illinois. He and his friend, folk singer Steve Goodman, were still polishing their skills at the Old Town School of Folk Music when Kristofferson, a rising star at the time, heard them sing one night in Chicago, and invited them to share his stage in New York City. The late film critic Roger Ebert, then with the Chicago Sun-Times, also saw one of his shows and declared him an â€œextraordinary new composer.â€
Suddenly noticed by Americaâ€™s most popular folk, rock and country singers, Prine signed with Atlantic Records and released his first album in 1971.
â€œI was really into writing about characters, givinâ€™ â€˜em names,â€ Prine said, reminiscing about his long career in a January 2016 public television interview that was posted on his website.
â€œYou just sit and look around you. You donâ€™t have to make up stuff. If you just try to take down the bare description of whatâ€™s going on, and not try to over-describe something, then it leaves space for the reader or the listener to fill in their experience with it, and they become part of it.â€
He was among the many promoted as a â€œNew Dylanâ€ and among the few to survive it and find his own way. Few songwriters could equal his wordplay, his empathy or his imagination.
â€œI try to look through someone elseâ€™s eyes,â€ he told Ebert in 1970. His characters were common people and confirmed eccentrics, facing the frustrations and pleasures anyone could relate to. â€œSam Stoneâ€ traces the decline of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran through the eyes of his little girl. â€œDonald and Lydiaâ€ tells of a tryst between a shy Army private and small-town girl, both vainly searching for â€œlove hidden deep in your heart:â€
They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams
they made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams.
But when they were finished, there was nothing to say,
â€˜cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.
â€œHe writes beautiful songs,â€ Dylan once told MTV producer Bill Flanagan. â€œI 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.â€
Prineâ€™s mischief shined in songs like â€œIllegal Smile,â€ which he swore wasnâ€™t about marijuana; â€œSpanish Pipedream,â€ about a topless waitress with â€œsomething up her sleeve;â€ and â€œDear Abby,â€ in which Prine imagines the advice columnist getting fed up with whiners and hypochondriacs.
â€œYou have no complaint,â€ his Abby writes back:
You are what you are and you ainâ€™t what you ainâ€™t
so listen up Buster, and listen up good
stop wishinâ€™ for bad luck and knocking on wood!â€
Prine was never a major commercial success, but performed for more than four decades, often selling his records at club appearances where he mentored rising country and bluegrass musicians.
â€œI felt like I was going door to door meeting the people and cleaning their carpets and selling them a record,â€ he joked in a 1995 Associated Press interview.
Many others adopted his songs. Bonnie Raitt made a signature tune out of â€œAngel from Montgomery,â€ about the stifled dreams of a lonely housewife, and performed it at the 2020 Grammys ceremony. Bette Midler recorded â€œHello in There,â€ Prineâ€™s poignant take on old age. Prine wrote â€œUnwed Fathersâ€ for Tammy Wynette, and â€œLove Is on a Rollâ€ for Don Williams.
Others who covered Prineâ€™s music included Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, John Denver, the Everly Brothers, Carly Simon, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Norah Jones and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Prine himself regarded Dylan and Cash as key influences, bridges between folk and country whose duet on Dylanâ€™s country rock album â€œNashville Skylineâ€ made Prine feel there was a place for him in contemporary music. Though mostly raised in Maywood, he spent summers in Paradise, Kentucky, and felt so great an affinity to his familyâ€™s roots there he would call himself â€œpure Kentuckian.â€
Prine was married three times, and appreciated a relationship that lasted. In 1999, he and Iris DeMent shared vocals on the classic title track of his album â€œIn Spite of Ourselves,â€ a ribald tribute to an old married couple.
In spite of ourselves weâ€™ll end up a-sittinâ€™ on a rainbow
Against all odds, honey weâ€™re the big door-prize
Weâ€™re gonna spite our noses right off of our faces
There wonâ€™t be nothinâ€™ but big olâ€™ hearts dancinâ€™ in our eyes
Prine preferred songs about feelings to topical music, but he did respond at times to the dayâ€™s headlines. Prineâ€™s parents had moved to suburban Chicago from Paradise, a coal town ravaged by strip mining that inspired one of his most cutting protest songs, â€œParadise.â€ It appeared on his first album, along with â€œYour Flag Decal Wonâ€™t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,â€ which criticized what he saw as false patriotism surrounding the Vietnam War.
Many years later, as President George W. Bush sent soldiers to war, Prine had a song for that, too. In â€œSome Humans Ainâ€™t Human,â€ he wrote: â€œYouâ€™re feeling your freedom, and the worldâ€™s off your back, some cowboy from Texas, starts his own war in Iraq.â€
Prineâ€™s off-hand charisma made him a natural for movies. He appeared in the John Mellencamp film â€œFalling From Grace,â€ and in Billy Bob Thorntonâ€™s â€œDaddy and Them.â€ His other Grammy Awards include Best Contemporary Folk Recording for his 1991 album â€œThe Missing Years,â€ with guest vocalists including Raitt, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Everly. He won Best Traditional Folk Album in 2004 for â€œBeautiful Dreamer.â€
Prine didnâ€™t let illness stop him from performing or recording. In 2013, long after surviving throat cancer, he was diagnosed with an unrelated and operable form of lung cancer, but he bounced back from that, too, often sharing the stage with DeMent and other younger artists. On the playful talking blues â€œWhen I Get to Heaven,â€ from the 2018 album â€œThe Tree of Forgiveness,â€ he vowed to have the last laugh for all eternity.
When I get to heaven, Iâ€™m gonna shake Godâ€™s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then Iâ€™m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ainâ€™t the afterlife grand?
His survived by his wife, Fiona, two sons Jack and Tommy, his stepson Jody and three grandchildren.
AP Entertainment Writer Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report from Nashville, Tennessee.