John Prine – ‘sweet songs never last too long on broken radios’

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John Prine

American wordsmith, singer-songwriter and grammy award-winning folk legend John Prine passed away last week, here Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman shares a personal reflection.

John Prine, who has died aged 73 due to complications of COVID-19, was famous for his stories between songs, but few stories were better than those surrounding how he was discovered.

After two years as a postman, Prine was drafted into the US Army and although he was lucky to be posted to Germany rather than Vietnam, he had returned to Chicago with a collection of strikingly original songs full of oblique observations and an understanding of the outsider.

Back delivering letters and playing the Windy City’s folk clubs, Prine came to the attention of Kris Kristofferson after a mutual friend had continually badgered the country star to come and see him.

“It was a Sunday night, two in the morning, the chairs were on the tables, the waitresses were counting their tips and I was waiting for my paycheck, and Kris came in with two other people.

“We got four chairs down and I got on the stage right in front of him and sang about seven songs.

“And then he bought me a beer and asked if I could get back up there and sing those seven again and anything else I wrote.” remembered Prine.

Kristofferson’s support earned Prine a deal with Atlantic but it was another moment of luck which got the young singer-songwriter further attention.

One random night in Chicago in October 1970, legendary film critic Roger Ebert left the movie he was supposed to be reviewing because his popcorn was too salty.

He went to a nearby bar seeking a beer and was encouraged to check out the unknown singer-songwriter performing in the back room.

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It was Prine, and Ebert persuaded his editor to run unplanned and rapturous review in which he wrote: “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.”

It was the kind of review that could have been written at any time during Prine’s career and one that summed up his unique appeal perfectly.

His 1972 debut album is a classic containing many of the songs that built his reputation: Paradise, Angel From Montgomery and, best of all, Sam Stone – a stunning composition about a struggling Vietnam vet with a “hole in his arm where all the money goes”.

It became probably his most famous tune.

Critical acclaim was huge but sales less so as Prine struggled a little with his tag as the “new Dylan”.

The irony was of course that it was Dylan himself who became one of his strongest admirers: “His stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Bob would later say.

“All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy and ‘where people make love from ten miles away’… nobody but Prine could write like that.

Bonnie Raitt would bring Prine’s songwriting talents to a wider audience by including a cover of his Angel From Montgomery on her 1974 album Streetlights and a pattern began to emerge that would remain from then on where his more famous peers would champion and cover his work over the years.

The likes of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Paul Westerberg, Tom Petty and R.E.M. all added to the Prine legend.

For the next four decades, he continued to release and write rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people in a way that was never patronising or over-romanticised.

By 2010, Prine had become a hero to a whole new generation.

He was well placed to become a godfather to both the alternative country movement and the freak-folk artists who appreciated his slightly skewed songwriting.

A tribute album, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, that year would feature Conor Oberts, My Morning Jacket, Lambchop and Josh Ritter.

It was Bon Iver‘s Justin Veron, meanwhile, who would pen the album’s liner notes and paying tribute to his hero would write “A simple majority of who I am as a person, let alone a musician, is because of John Prine. He is my number 1.”

Many more felt exactly the same.

Rest in Peace John Prine. “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”.

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