The music industry has taken another loss as John Prine lost his battle with COVID-19 yesterday, April 7. The songwriter was hospitalized in his hometown of Nashville last week and was put on a ventilator on Saturday. His publicist confirmed his death on behalf of his family. He was 73.
Prine was known for his Dylan-esque songwriter style characterized by jangly guitars and lyrics that had the ability to tell a story. His songs often celebrated the underdog but he also wrote several pieces that are more satirical in nature. In this sense, he could be compared to Shel Silverstein.
The songwriter was born on October 10, 1946 and was raised in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago. He grew up listening to Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Little Richard. His brother taught him to play guitar and he began writing his own songs when he was 14 years old. He describes the music he wrote as ‘old-timey country stuff”.
Prine continued taking guitar lessons but never considered doing music full time. He was working as a mailman and playing gigs at night when film critic Roger Ebert walked in on one of his shows. Ebert gave Prine a terrific live review which worked to boost his music career. He was signed to Atlantic records after a show at The Bottom Line in New York shortly after.
The musician’s debut album came out in 1971 and earned him a Grammy nomination in 1972. He continued to churn out albums throughout the 70’s and many prestigious artists covered his songs.
Although Prine’s life started to resemble that of a rock star, the spotlight didn’t come naturally to him. "I had a difficult time listening back to them because I was so nervous," he said of his early records. "I didn't expect to do this for a living, be a recording artist. I was just playing music for the fun of it and writing songs to ... that was kind of my escape, you know, from the humdrum of the world."
However, he continued making music on his own terms eventually founding the independent label Oh Boy with his manager Al Bunetta.
Prine slowed his musical output in the 80’s and 90’s but also enjoyed major musical accomplishments during those years. In 1983, he collaborated with John Cougar Mellencamp on his hit track Jackie O. In 1991 he collaborated with members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on his album The Missing Years which ended up winning him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Starting in the mid 90’s Prine’s health started to decline. He battled cancer and heart disease. Despite these setbacks, he continued making music. His last album, Tree of Forgiveness, was released in 2018. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame the following year.
Tree of Forgiveness featured a song called When I Get to Heaven. In the song, Prine gives a detailed account of what he will do when he dies. It may have been his way of saying goodbye and it assures fans that he will still be raising hell in heaven. Godspeed John Prine.