Country music legend John Prine has passed away due to coronavirus-related complications, according to a representative of Prine. The Grammy Award-winning artist and Country Music Hall of Famer was known for character-driven ballads, songs frequently characterized as evocative, surreal, provocatively witty and soaked in unencumbered realism.
Prine was hospitalized on March 26 and passed away after spending over a week in an intensive care unit.
According to Prine's personal Instagram account, his wife Fiona Prine posted an update saying the singer had pneumonia in both his lungs and was put on a ventilator to help him breathe last week.
Prine’s death has left a hole in the hearts of country and folk enthusiasts across the world. Here are some of the landmark moments from Prine’s career:
Teen turned military member turned mailman
Decades before Rolling Stone would endow him with the impressive moniker, the “Mark Twain of American Songwriting,” Prine was just an Illinois boy trying to learn how to play the guitar. Born in 1946, Prine started strumming at age 14 and took classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, according to his biography on the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Prine idolized folk heroes like Bob Dylan, artists who were outspoken on social injustice and critical of the Vietnam War. He would find himself drafted into the military just a year before the “Summer of Love,” serving as a bulldozer mechanic in Germany, according to Men’s Journal.
Following his military service, Prine worked as a mail carrier, finding time to sing and strum the guitar when his hands were free from carrying packages.
Open mic singer discovered by a film critic
The Fifth Peg folk club was where Prine publicly showcased the hymns and hums he had been developing during his mail route.
“Regardless of how good you were, you could get up there and sing,” Prine said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, noting how he was encouraged by friends to give some of his own material a whirl after criticizing some of the onstage performers.
“I remember playing ‘Sam Stone’ and the crowd just sat there and looked at me when I was done and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I'm in trouble,'” Prine told the Tribune. “But it was like they were stunned, and then they applauded.”
Small crowds and meager change were commonplace for his performances at the Fifth Peg, until a review from a Chicago Sun-Times writer, as Prine said, “busted things wide open.”
“He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1970 review about the singer, the first that Prine had ever received. “But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Some help from a highwayman
Prine turned down an initial record deal from the Chicago-based Delmark label, later opting to tour across the country.
During a gig at the Earl of Old Down in Chicago, he caught the eye of fellow country legend and Texas native Kris Kristofferson, then a slightly more established singer, who offered Prine a spot at a show in New York.
The New York gig helped Prine land a deal with Atlantic Records. His 1971 self-titled debut album included landmarks like “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery.”
Writing for Rolling Stone, critic Karin Berg noted that Prine’s “bitter eye reflects that he really has strong ideals, that he’s a compassionate person who has seen sharp disillusionment growing from people’s uncaring behavior toward other people.”
Prine would release three more albums under Atlantic’s label: “Diamonds In The Rough,” “Sweet Revenge” and “Common Sense.” He’d then sign with Asylum Records, the label founded by media mogul David Geffen, who published Prine’s “Bruised Orange” (1978), “Pink Cadillac” (1979), and “Storm Windows” (1980).
Onward from the mid-1980s, most of Prine’s work was released under his own label, Oh Boy Records.
While Prine’s success could largely be attributed to that fateful finding by Kristofferson in the early 70s, the Texan refuses to take any acclaim.
“People give me credit for ‘discovering’ John Prine,” Kristofferson said, according to Men’s Journal. “That’s like saying Columbus discovered America. It was already here.”
Influencing his influencers
What do Bette Midler and the Zac Brown Band have in common? No, this isn’t a joke setup: both have covered Prine tunes at some point in their careers.
Midler released a version of Prine’s “Hello in There” on her 1972 album “The Divine.” Zac Brown Band collaborated with Kacey Musgraves on a cover of Prine’s “All the Best” in 2017.
And that’s just the start of a very long list of tributes, covers and renditions of Prine songs by other acclaimed artists. Johnny Cash, John Denver, Bonnie Raitt, Miranda Lambert and Alison Krauss are among the country crooners who’ve paid an ode to Prine, while Norah Jones, Carly Simon, and Roger Waters have broken the country boundary to churn out a Prine tune. Oh, and Kristofferson, too.
The covers don’t stop with established artists. Take a dive through YouTube and you’ll find dozens of users who’ve uploaded videos of themselves jamming along to Prine hits.
While he didn’t necessarily deliver the most notable Prine cover, a certain 60s folk singer is responsible for giving one of the most oft-quoted pieces of Prine acclaim.
“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Bob Dylan, one of Prine's main influences, said in 2009. “Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
Hello Hall of Fame
2019 proved to be a landmark year for Prine. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and was announced as one of the Recording Academy’s recipients of their Lifetime Achievement Award for 2020.
He came close to getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, selected as a nominee in 2019 but not as a member of the inductee class. Ultimate Classic Rock published a list of reasons as to why Prine should be inducted, highlighting his musical accomplishments and influence, as well as his keen wit and sharp insight on social issues.