John started a conversation with his songs. A master storyteller, John Prine was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, the son of two Muhlenberg, Kentucky transplants. He learned guitar at fourteen, served in Viet Nam, and returned to Chicago after his military term. During a five-year stint as a mailman, John went from the audience to the stage at local Folk clubs, garnering his first review from Robert Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Though not the music critic for the paper, Ebert, the paper’s film critic and wandered into the Fifth Peg, covering the artist and securing John Prine a spot on any Folk club bill, the singer claiming that after the review ‘I never had an empty seat’. John Prine was an established name on the Chicago Folk music scene when he came to the attention of Kris Kristofferson, who became an instant fan, helping John out of the Folk circuit in Chicago and aiding in securing at Atlantic Records recording deal.
The first four album Atlantic Records releases from John Prine are a songwriter’s dream catch. The self-titled John Prine (1971) began the cycle, the album opening with a puff of smoke and “An Illegal Smile” as the lead cut. His first album release presented John as a top-shelf songman, the recording holding two massive hits for other artists when Bonnie Raitt struck gold with her version of “Angel from Montgomery” and Bette Midler with “Hello in There”. Politics were a theme in early 1970 art and John Prine contributed to the discussion with a commentary on returning Viet Nam soliders with “Sam Stone”, the environment in “Paradise”, and had an answer for war hawks with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”. He continued taking aim at politics with his second album, Diamonds in the Rough (1972) with “Take the Star Out of Your Window”. For his sophomore release, John Prine continued to toss off gems on the track listing, his songwriting gaining recognition for his talent to craft sweeping stories and cram multiple emotions into award-winning one-liners,
A critics choice from his first recording, album number three showed confidence from its author while the songs boasted heft from a full band backing. The opening Sweet Revenge (1973) title track took sides with the hippie underground, lyrically snapping and biting at haters with current news facts. Sly wit had become key ingredient in John Prine’s stories and Sweet Revenge kept a smile on faces when “Please Don’t Bury Me” sends a letter to those left behind while he addresses the lovelorn in “Dear Abby” and reads from a personal resume with “Often is a Word I Seldom Use”. The Steve Cropper (Booker T & The M.G.’s) produced Common Sense (1975) was album number four and the music found John Prine sitting in island breezes with “Forbidden Jimmy”, Rock’n’Roll grooves for “Saddle in the Rain”, Folk Rock for the title track, and a melting pot of Tex Mex, Country, and Rock with “Middle Man”.
After his initial four releases on Atlantic Records, John Prine moved over to Asylum Records for three releases, including the Steve Goodman-produced Bruised Oranges. Frustrated with the way the industry treated its songwriters and performers, John Prine co-founded Oh Boy! Records in 1981, releasing Aimless Love (1984) as his debut on the label, the recording funded through fans. In 1991 John Prine recorded The Missing Years with The Heartbreakers Howie Epstein producing. The album brought John a Grammy and he kept the same team for Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings (1995). A covers compilation in 1999, paired John with female duet partners such as Lucinda Williams, Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and Iris Dement on the immediate keeper “In Spite of Ourselves”. Another Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album came with his 2005 release, Fair & Square. Releases followed with a long stretch in between until his 2018 release, The Tree of Forgiveness which became the highest charting Billboard album for John Prine.
Health issues dogged John Prine’s body though his bouts with cancer never stopped his spirit. In 1998 he was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck and in 2013 underwent surgery to remove cancer from his right lung, recovering with a physical therapy treatment that required him to run up and down his home stairs, grab his guitar, and sing two songs. On March 26, 2020, John Prine was hospitalized during the coronavirus pandemic with symptoms of COVID-19. He was intubated on March 28, 2020 and remained on a ventilator due to pneumonia in both lungs and other peripheral issues. John Prine succumbed to complications from the virus on April 7, 2020.