Two time Grammy-winner, singer-songwriter, John Prine, is among the English language’s premier phrase-turners.
Forty-five years into a remarkable career that has drawn effusive praise from Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Roger Waters, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and others who would know, Prine is a smiling, shuffling force for good. He is a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member whose classic debut album, simply titled John Prine, is recognized as part of the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.
Prine’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, the Everly Brothers, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Norah Jones, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, and many others. But his genius isn’t found in his resume, it’s found in the brilliance of lyrics from his large catalog of songs.
There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. – “Sam Stone”
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire this old house would have burned down a long time ago. – “Angel from Montgomery”
Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see, That’s why last night and this morning always look the same to me. – “Souvenirs”
The whole thing started early. In 1970, Prine was playing a Chicago club called the Fifth Peg when a young reporter named Roger Ebert walked in, listened and understood.
“You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday,” Ebert wrote.
Soon, Kris Kristofferson walked into a gig at the same bar, encouraged by Prine’s friend and comrade, Steve Goodman. Prine thought he was done playing that night, but Kristofferson took a chair from off the top of a table and asked to hear some of his songs. The resulting all-night session left ristofferson muttering, “He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fingers,” but instead of breaking his fingers he served as a megaphone to the world for Prine, who soon garnered a record deal and released the self-titled album that came out in 1971.
“I bought John Prine’s first album on LP when it was released,” said United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, in 2005. “I played it as soon as I got home and noticed at once that here was a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people… He’s taken ordinary people and made monuments of them, treating them with great respect and love.”
Roger Waters, part of art rock band Pink Floyd, proclaims that Prine, “lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon.”
Bob Dylan ponders songs like “Sam Stone” and “Donald and Lydia” and says, “nobody like Prine could write like that.”
Indeed, Prine’s songs are singular and atypical enough to remove themselves from any notion of competition. They stand alone, yet they pal around with the masses.
John’s parents, William Prine and Verna Ham Prine migrated from Paradise, Kentucky in 1934, joining the many others chasing work in the industrial north. They settled in the west Chicago suburb of Maywood, and raised four boys. John and his brothers – David, Doug and Billy – grew up in a close, loving extended family where country music, the Grand Ol’ Opry, good Southern cooking, and annual visits ‘home’ to Kentucky were as naturally part of their lives as Chicago hot dogs and baseball.
In the late 1960s, after a 2-year tour of duty in Germany, Prine worked as a mailman in his own Maywood neighborhood. He passed mail delivery time by making up songs, and soon began singing those songs in Chi-town clubs.
“Hank Williams was my dad’s hero, and I wanted to impress my dad,” Prine says. “When I started writing my own songs, it was so that he’d know that I could. If he’d have liked ballet, I’d have been Rudolf Nureyev.”
Prine classic albums include, Diamonds in the Rough (1972) Bruised Orange (1978) Storm Windows (1986) The Missing Years (1991) In Spite of Ourselves (1999) and Fair & Square (2005).
He has collaborated with musical heroes from Bruce Springsteen to Mac Wiseman, and has been name-checked in songs by Country Music Hall of Famer, Vince Gill, and contemporary country songbird Kacey Musgraves.
John’s music has stayed as relevant as ever. A song called ‘Paradise’ written by John, for his father, and was a track on his 1971 debut album, has recently reappeared in the headlines. The song is about the devastating impact of coal strip mining, with references to Peabody Coal Company, who, before declaring bankruptcy in 2016 , had fought to keep the lyrics to ‘Paradise’ from a lawsuit.
Prine is an Americana Music Honors & Awards winner for lifetime achievement in songwriting and was recently awarded the prestigious PEN Lyrics Award. He continues to record and perform at sold out shows all over the US, Canada, and Europe.
Following the 2015 death of his dear friend and business partner Al Bunetta, John Prine is now President and sole owner of Oh Boy Records.
He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Fiona, and enjoys spending time with their three sons, a daughter-in-law, and his namesake grandson.