I heard from Grunge today that John Prine passed away this week. Prine was a singer/songwriter of folk music. His recording career began in the 1970’s and over the decades he churned out a unique assortment of serious, somber, and silly songs. Prine was a decent guitar player, but it was the wit and humor of his wordsmithing which caught the attention of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, as well as each succeeding generation of singer/songwriters.
One of Prine’s funniest songs was “Dear Abbie”, a hilarious back and forth between advice giver Abbie and those hapless enough to need her advice. Verse after verse, no matter the problem, Abbie’s advice is identical and unwavering:
“You have no complaint, you are what you are and you aint’ what you ain’t./
So listen up buster and listen up good. Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.”
That song was off Prine’s second album, “Sweet Revenge.” His first album, “John Prine,” was a remarkable variety of music from comedy to dead seriousness, with room for an off speed pitch like Angel From Montgomery. And so it went with John Prine. He made music into his seventies, garnering a devoted following along the way. Over time he became a legend, drawing comparisons with Mark Twain. Not bad for a former mailman from the Chicago suburb of Maywood Illinois.
Prine started writing songs while wandering the suburban streets of Chicago. He was drafted and spent his army time in Germany, “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” His modesty wears well even years later. In addition to having his songs covered by literally dozens of musicians, Prine was a two time Grammy winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and recipient of the 2016 PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award.
But life is never a smooth trajectory. In addition to having three marriages, Prine in 1998 was diagnosed with neck cancer. Surgery was necessary to remove the growth. The result was loss of some nerves in his tongue, damage to salivary glands, and a year of speech therapy before Prine could take the stage again. His largest fear was that he would be unable to sing. Although his voice had a lower, more gravelly tone to it, Prine found to his relief that he could still sing.
Cancer was not done with John Prine. In 2013 he paid a further price for his fondness for cigarettes when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Yet less than a year after surgery Prine was touring again.
In 2018 Prine released his first album or original material in 13 years. Tree of Forgiveness debuted at Number Five on Billboard. The tour for the album opened to a sold out Radio City Music Hall in New York City. After five decades of making music, Prine still had what it took to captivate his old fans and capture new ones. Upon receiving induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Prine remarked: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”
In March, 2020, Prine and and wife Fiona returned from a European tour and began planning a Summer tour of the US. Then Fiona tested positive for the SARS CoV-2 virus. She was quarantined at home apart from John. On March 26 Prine was hospitalized in critical condition after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. By April 3 Fiona had recovered, but her husband had pneumonia in both lungs and was on a ventilator. On April 7 John Prine died of complications of COVID-19.
Prine had a decades long friendship with Bonnie Raitt, who covered Prine’s Angel From Montgomery. She recalled Prine as “incredibly endearing and witty, The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.”
John Prine, Requiesciat in Pacem