John Prine: 1946 – 2020

Photo of Music Express Author Roman Mitz with wife Julie, and John Prine at Ontario Place ’90
by Roman Mitz

I always liked John Prine’s music, but it took his passing away from symptoms of COVID-19 to realize just how much he impacted both music fans and musicians all around the world. The outpouring of grief, fond memories and heartfelt tributes for the man they call the Mark Twain of American songwriting, has been nothing short of phenomenal.  Bruce Springsteen tweeted “Over here on E Street, we are crushed by the loss of John Prine.  John and I were “New Dylans” together in the early 70s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.”

The Illinois native was discovered in a folk bar in Chicago where young gun songwriters Steve Goodman (‘City Of New Orleans’) and Kris Kristofferson were immediately smitten with his good-natured rapport with his audience and effective delivery. This led to a headlining appearance at New York’s Bitter End club, and his signing to Atlantic Records shortly thereafter. Prine’s self-titled debut album in 1971 was an instant classic, including such gems as perennial concert singalong favourite ‘Illegal Smile’ and the sentimental ‘Hello In There’. It also contained ‘Angel From Montgomery’, which has been covered by a host of artists including Tanya Tucker, Bonnie Raitt and Toronto’s Leslie Spit Trio, with a rollicking version that Prine said he loved.

The Canadian connection doesn’t stop there as Prine guested on the Cowboy Junkies’ album ‘Black-Eyed Man’, duetting with Margo Timmins on ‘If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man’. He also toured with the Junkies in 1992.

Prine released three more albums in the early ’70s which turned out fan favourite staples like ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, ‘Dear Abby’ and ‘Please Don’t Bury Me’. It was his 1978 album ‘Bruised Orange’, however, that became his most critically acclaimed to date. Produced by Steve Goodman, the album gave us such certified classics as ‘That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘Round’, ‘Fish & Whistle’ and the melancholy title track. His 1980 album ‘Storm Windows’ was his last for a major label as, disenchanted with the way his music was being marketed, he started his own ‘Oh Boy’ label in 1981 along with his manager Al Bunetta and their friend Dan Einstein. John was a bit of a visionary as he sold a large chunk of his albums via mail order, preceding Amazon’s online service by about 30 years. His biggest record for ‘Oh Boy’ was 1991’s ‘The ‘Missing ‘Years’ on which he was aided by a who’s who guest list of musicians including Springsteen, Tom Petty and Phil Everly.

I had the opportunity of interviewing John for Music Express when that record came out (and meet him after his Ontario Place show) and he was an absolute delight, as his disarming humour put me immediately at ease.  I asked him about the album’s first song ‘Picture Show’, which has a couple of contrasting themes that almost make it sound like two songs that had been melded together. “Sounded like that to you too, did it?” he laughed. “That’s because I got stuck and couldn’t finish it, so I put it in a drawer and when I pulled it out later it took off in a different direction.”

John had a couple of subsequent serious health bumps, first in 1998 when he was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his neck which required major surgery. In 2013 he developed cancer in his left lung but after successful surgery, he was back on the road within half a year. He only released a handful of albums in the 2000s, but they were all dandies and in 2020 he was rightfully recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.  Prine completists should be aware that his final recordings were two humorous duets with Swamp Dogg on the latter’s recent album ‘Sorry You Couldn’t Make It’.  We’ll leave off with a quote from novelist and Prine fan Stephen King, who summed it up in his tweet simply and succinctly, “Coronavirus has taken one of the great ones: John Prine, dead at 73. So many memorable songs.”

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