A FEW days ago it was revealed that the greatly admired American singer-songwriter John Prine was seriously ill with coronavirus.
Prine, 73, was admitted to hospital on Thursday March 26 after a ‘sudden onset’ of severe symptoms. By last Sunday his condition was described as critical. The next day his wife Fiona announced that he was ‘stable’ but still not out of the woods. ‘Stable is not the same as improving,’ she said. ‘There is no cure for Covid-19 and he needs our prayers.’
Let’s hope he pulls through. Here’s his story and, fingers crossed, not an obituary.
John Prine was born on October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois, son of tool-and-die maker William and his wife Verna. At the age of 14 he was taught to play the guitar by his brother David. On leaving school he became a mailman while honing his musical skills performing at open-mike nights in clubs. He also spent time in the Army during the Vietnam War but was lucky to be stationed in Germany.
The young Prine became central to a folk revival in Chicago alongside singers including Steve Goodman. After being talent-spotted by Kris Kristofferson, who remarked that his songs were ‘so good we’ll have to break his thumbs’, Prine was signed by Atlantic Records, which released his self-titled debut album. It is stuffed with great songs, including Sam Stone, about a drug-addicted old soldier (There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes).
This was the first Prine track I ever heard, when it was included on a sampler album, The New Age of Atlantic.
Hello in There is a heartbreaking piece about the elderly. Prine would later say: ‘I always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old people’s home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head. It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing Hello in There. Nothing in it wears on me.’ Another song about advancing years, Angel from Montgomery, was covered in 1974 by the great Bonnie Raitt on her Streetlights album. Interviewed in 2000, she said: ‘It probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I’ve ever recorded. It’s just such a tender way of expressing that sentiment of longing – like Hello in There – without being maudlin or obvious. It has all the different shadings of love and regret and longing. It’s a perfect expression from a wonderful genius.’
Paradise is a tribute to Prine’s father, who hailed from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and bemoans the depredations of strip mining, where the top of a mountain is blasted away with dynamite to reach the coal below. The song has become a bluegrass standard, which Prine said ‘is pretty neat cos it’s a real close personal song. It was written for my father about where all my family’s from, that doesn’t exist any more, and to think a song like that – I wasn’t even going to record it because I didn’t think anybody would be able to pronounce Muhlenberg.’
Another beauty is Donald and Lydia,
with its chorus of
But dreaming just comes natural
Like the first breath from a baby
Like sunshine feeding daisies
Like the love hidden deep in your heart.
The album was rapturously received and Prine was inevitably named ‘the new Dylan’.
His next LP, 1972’s Diamonds in the Rough, features his brother Dave on dobro, banjo and fiddle while Steve Goodman provides guitar and harmonies. This is an unpretentious, down-home affair recorded in three days at a cost of $7,200 ‘including beer’. Prine said: ‘I just wanted to do Diamonds the way I was used to, playing music at my house with Dave and Steve.’ Here’s a typical track, Yes I Guess They Oughtta Name a Drink After You.
Album number three, Sweet Revenge, included several future favourites including Christmas in Prison, Dear Abby and Grandpa Was a Carpenter.
It was released in 1973. Two years later came Common Sense, Prine’s first LP to feature in the Billboard Top 100. Guest artists include Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Glen Frey and Steve Goodman. It was produced by Steve Cropper, who added many overdubs against Prine’s wishes. Tracks include the catchily titled Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard.
Despite the album’s chart success Prine was unhappy with the way Atlantic had marketed it, and switched to the Asylum label which released the 1978 LP Bruised Orange, produced by old pal Steve Goodman. This was seen by many as his best record since his debut, with standout tracks including That’s The Way the World Goes Round and Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone, which Prine said was the strangest song he ever wrote. It tells of the culture shock felt by the Indian movie actor who played Sabu the elephant boy when he went on a promotional tour of shopping malls in the American Midwest in deepest winter.
If You Don’t Want My Love was co-written with Phil Spector, whom Prine visited at his Hollywood home after they were introduced by a rock critic. Prine recalled: ‘We’d been there for seven hours, jokin’, drinkin’. And by the way, when you go in the house, he’s got two bodyguards on his shoulder. It was just craziness, you know. So I was leaving around four in the morning, and all of a sudden Phil sits down at the piano as I was getting my jacket on, and he hands me an electric guitar unplugged. And I sit down on the bench next to him. I played him That’s The Way The World Goes Round, and he really liked it. He said, “Let’s do this” and he played the beginning notes of If You Don’t Want My Love. And we came up with the first couple lines and he insisted that we repeat them. Over and over. He said it would be very effective. And we took That’s The Way The World Goes Round and took the melody and turned it inside out. And that was on my way out the door. As soon as he sat down and had a musical instrument, he was normal. That’s the way he was. He was just a plain old genius.’
After 1979’s Pink Cadillac album, which included Saigon and How Lucky, both produced by the legendary Sam Phillips, Prine decided to plough a lone furrow and set up his own label, Oh Boy. Several records followed in the Eighties and Nineties before he again achieved major success in 1999 with In Spite of Ourselves, an album of duets with country stars including Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Iris DeMent.
The following year he released Souvenirs, 15 excellent new recordings of classic songs which, if you’re unfamiliar with Prine’s work, is a great place to start.
It’s a long time since he was hailed as the new Dylan. But what did the old Dylan think about him? In a 2009 interview Bob described John as one of his favourite writers. ‘Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,’ he said. ‘Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about Sam Stone, the soldier junkie daddy, and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.’
Before the virus struck, Prine had already survived two bouts of cancer so he’s clearly a fighter. As of last night, the latest bulletin from wife Fiona said he had pneumonia in both lungs and needed ‘quite a bit of help with his breathing’. She added: ‘He is very ill, and yet I remain hopeful that he can continue to fight this devastating virus and come home where we can care for him.’
Here is a fairly recent performance by John of his song When I Get To Heaven.
As one of the YouTube commenters says: ‘Hang in there Buddy . . . Heaven can wait.’