John Prine’s origin story is almost too perfect for the life of a folk singer. He wrote lyrics in his head while waking his route as a mail carrier in the Chicago suburb of Westchester.
“Once you know that route, you’re like in a library with no books,” Prine told WBEZ’s Sound Opinions in 2018. “You got all this time on your hands to think about stuff … I need to be doing something else when I’m writing.”
Those internal musings were the start of John Prine’s career as one of America’s greatest songwriters.
Prine died Tuesday in Nashville at the age of 73. According to Prine’s family, the singer died of complications from COVID-19, for which he had been hospitalized late last month.
Prine was born in Maywood, Ill., and grew up in the western suburb and in Melrose Park. “I started writing when I was 14 and then it was totally a hobby,” Prine told Sound Opinions. When Prine returned from the Army in 1968, he started writing again. His ascent on Chicago’s music scene was rapid.
“It wasn’t like he was there for 10 years … he had a record contract by 1971,” Ed Holstein remembered. Holstein teaches at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, where Prine took classes. Also a musician, he was part of that 1960s and ’70s folk scene and frequented many of the same clubs on Lincoln Avenue where Prine played.
Holstein remembered the August night in 1969 when he first saw Prine perform. The set that night: “Hello in There,” “Paradise,” “Sam Stone” and “Illegal Smile” — all songs that Prine would perform over the next 50 years.
Holstein said performers had to possess something special to capture the audiences at clubs like Fifth Peg, where Prine was discovered, and The Earl of Old Town. “You had to have a sense of performance. You just couldn’t just get up there and sing one song after the other,” Holstein said. “You had to tell some stories, you had to reach out in some way.”
“John had that. There was no question about what was going on,” Holstein said, referring to Prine’s talent.
The late, great writer and critic Roger Ebert saw it. Ebert saw Prine in 1970 at the Fifth Peg and wrote about that performance for the Chicago Sun-Times.
“He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you,” Ebert wrote.
The review continued: “Prine’s songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves.”
Prine’s lyrics are simple but haunting, which is showcased in one of his earliest and best-known songs “Sam Stone.”
In 2018, Prine explained the origin of the post-Vietnam War song’s lyrics to Sound Opinions hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot like this:
“I wanted to come up with the hopelessness of heroin and the hopelessness of the War. And I thought, ‘What was the most hopeless thing I could think of?’ And it was “Jesus Christ dying for nothing, I suppose. Wow, that got me in trouble in more than one place. Over at the Fifth Peg when I first sang that song, I remember three, big, burly guys got up and walked out, and a woman was sobbing in the corner and some other people were laughing because it was like a nervous reaction to it.”
But, Prine wrote funny and silly lyrics, too, like in the song “In Spite of Ourselves”: “We’ll end up sitting on a rainbow … against all odds, honey we’re the big door prize. We’re gonna spite our noses right off our faces, there won’t be nothing but big old hearts dancing in our eyes.”
Prine talked about trying to steer clear of writing folk songs that take themselves too seriously. “I really try and avoid in my lyrics being super, super serious because I’m writing about things that are heavy to me because I wouldn’t ever say they’re heavy to somebody else,” Prine said in 2018.
Prine’s wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, tweeted late last month that Prine was in the hospital, suffering from COVID-19. Late last week, Whelan Prine sent a series of tweets that her husband was in the ICU in Nashville on a respirator.
The family announced Tuesday evening John Prine had died.
John Prine is survived by his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, and three sons and leaves an indelible impression on the Great American Songbook.
Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.