The US singer-songwriter John Prine died on 7 April, following complications from Covid-19. Prine had a profound influence on the American folk-country scene with a career that spanned more than 50 years, though he never reached the commercial heights of some of his peers. He weaved stories of working class life with wry songwriting, seeking to record what he termed the “in-between spaces.” Bob Dylan described his contributions as “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”
Prine grew up in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago. His father was a steelworker and trade union activist. Family holidays were spent in Paradise, his parents’ hometown in Kentucky; later the inspiration for a song of the same name. It laments how coal mining stripped the natural environment and the drive for profit decimated its community. The track went on to become an anthem for the environmental movement, and was covered by Johnny Cash.
Though he was musical from a young age - drawing inspiration from his brother’s collection of Buddy Holly, Cash and Little Richard - Prine didn’t make it as a full-time musician until his mid-twenties. He wrote much
of his debut album while working as a mailman in Chicago.
He recorded his first album with Atlantic Record’s house band the Memphis Boys. It didn’t initially meet with great success but has since been considered a classic Country album. It features one of his most popular tracks, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More which rails against the patriotism shown by households that Prine visited as a mailman. Residents would post up American flags pulled out of Reader’s Digest during the Vietnam War.
Heaven was “already overcrowded from your dirty little war,” Prine sang, and “Jesus don’t like killin’, whatever the reason’s for.” The Vietnam War had a significant affect on his songwriting, and it was the experience of veterans that prompted him to write Sam Stone, one of his most political songs.
It is a portrait of a returning soldier experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. Prine revisited the anti-war theme with his 2005 track Some Humans Ain’t Human. George Bush had just begun waging war in the Middle East — a time when “you’re feeling your freedom/And the world’s off your back” then “Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq”.
Prine didn’t neglect typical Country music themes of romance, lovesickness and loss. Hello in There is a track about an older couple of lonely empty-nesters, and Christmas in Prison is his not- quite-holiday love song about lust and longing.
Two battles with cancer led to a slight decline in productivity in the 2000s. Illness also altered his sound. His vocals changed to a new (but not unwelcome) gravelly sound that came to characterise his later recordings. He came back with the top 5 album The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018.
By his death, he had won a new generation of young artists and listeners to his music. His great music survives him.