John Prine (born October 10, 1946) is an American country folk singer-songwriter. He has been active as a composer, recording artist, and live performer since the early 1970s, and is known for an often humorous style of country music that has elements of protest and social commentary.
Born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, Prine learned to play the guitar at the age of 14. He attended classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. After serving in West Germany with the U.S. armed forces, he moved to Chicago in the late 1960s, where he worked as a mailman, writing and singing songs as a hobby.
A member of Chicago's folk revival, he was discovered by Kris Kristofferson, resulting in the production of Prine's self-titled debut album with Atlantic Records in 1971. After receiving critical acclaim, Prine focused on his musical career, recording three more albums for Atlantic. He then signed to Asylum Records, where he recorded an additional three albums. In 1984 he co-founded Oh Boy Records, an independent record label with which he would release most of his subsequent albums. After his battle with squamous cell cancer in 1998, Prine's vocals deepened into a gravelly voice.
Widely cited as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, Prine is known for humorous lyrics about love, life, and current events, as well as serious songs with social commentary, or which recollect melancholy tales from his life.
Prine is the son of William Prine and Verna Hamm. He started playing guitar at age 14, taught by his brother, David. He attended classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Prine attended Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois. He was a mailman for five years and served in the Army during the Vietnam War era, serving in Germany, before beginning his musical career in Chicago.
In the late-1960s, while Prine was delivering mail, he began to sing at open mic evenings at the Fifth Peg on Armitage Avenue in Chicago. Prine was initially a spectator, reluctant to perform, but eventually did so in response to a "You think you can do better?" comment made to him by another performer. Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert heard him there and wrote the first review Prine ever received, calling him a great songwriter. He became a central figure in the Chicago folk revival, which also included such singer-songwriters as Steve Goodman, Michael Peter Smith, Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Tom Dundee, Anne Hills and Fred Holstein. Joined by such established musicians as Jethro Burns and Bob Gibson, Prine performed frequently at a variety of Chicago clubs—including the Earl of Old Town, the Quiet Knight, Dangling Conversation, Somebody Else's Troubles, The Fifth Peg, and the Bulls.
In 1971 Prine's self-titled debut album was released. He and friend Steve Goodman had each been active in the Chicago folk scene before being "discovered" by Kris Kristofferson (Kristofferson remarked that Prine wrote songs so good that "we'll have to break his thumbs"). The album included his signature songs "Illegal Smile," "Sam Stone," and the folk and country standards "Angel from Montgomery" and "Paradise." The album also featured "Hello In There," a song about aging that was later covered by numerous artists, and "Far From Me", a lonely waltz about lost love for a waitress that Prine later said was his favorite of all his songs. The album received many positive reviews, and some hailed Prine as "the next Dylan." Bob Dylan himself appeared unannounced at one of Prine's first New York City club appearances, anonymously backing him on harmonica.
Prine's second album, Diamonds In The Rough (1972), was a surprise for many after the critical success of his first LP; it was an uncommercial, stripped-down affair that reflected Prine's fondness for bluegrass music and features songs reminiscent of Hank Williams. Highlights include the allegorical "The Great Compromise," which includes a recitation and addresses the Vietnam War, and the ballad "Souvenirs," which Prine later recorded with Goodman.
Subsequent albums include Sweet Revenge (1973), containing such fan favorites as "Dear Abby," "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," and "Christmas in Prison," and Common Sense (1975), with "Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard". The latter album was Prine's first to be charted in the US Top 100 by Billboard, reflecting growing commercial success. It was produced by Steve Cropper. Many veteran Prine fans view the release of 1978's Bruised Orange as a creative highpoint. The Steve Goodman-produced album gave listeners songs such as "The Hobo Song," "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone," and the title track.
In 1974, singer David Allan Coe achieved considerable success on the country charts with "You Never Even Called Me By My Name", co-written by Prine and Goodman. The song good-naturedly spoofs stereotypical country music lyrics. Prine refused to take a songwriter's credit and the tune went to Goodman, although Goodman bought Prine a jukebox as a gift from his publishing royalties.
In 1975, Prine toured the U.S. and Canada with a full band featuring guitarist Arlen Roth. As of 2014, this has been Prine's only tour with a full band.
The 1979 album Pink Cadillac features two songs produced by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who by this time rarely did any studio work. The song "Saigon," is about a Vietnam vet traumatized by the war ("The static in my attic's gettin' ready to blow"). During the recording, one of the guitar amps blew up (which is evident on the album). The other song Phillips produced is "How Lucky," about Prine's hometown.
Prine continued writing and recording albums throughout the 1980s and formed his own record label, Oh Boy Records. His songs continued to be covered by other artists; the country supergroup The Highwaymen recorded "The Twentieth Century Is Almost Over," which had been written by Prine and Goodman. Steve Goodman died of leukemia in 1984 and Prine continues to perform many of Goodman's songs in concert to this day, such as "My Old Man."
In 1991, Prine released the Grammy Award-winning The Missing Years, his first collaboration with producer and Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. The title song records Prine's humorous take on what Jesus did in the unrecorded years between his childhood and ministry. In 1995, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings was released, another collaboration with Epstein. Prine followed in 1999 with In Spite of Ourselves, which was unusual for him in that it contained only one original song; the rest were covers of classic country songs. All of the tracks are duets with well-known female country vocalists, including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, and Iris DeMent.
In 2001, Prine co-starred in the Billy Bob Thornton movie Daddy & Them. "In Spite of Ourselves" can be heard as the end credits roll.
Prine recorded a version of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" in 2004 for the compilation album Beautiful Dreamer, which won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2004.
In 2005, Prine released his first all-new offering since Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, the album Fair & Square, which tended toward a more laid-back, acoustic approach. The album contains songs such as "Safety Joe," about a man who has never taken any risks in his life, and also "Some Humans Ain't Human," Prine's protest piece on the album, which talks about the ugly side of human nature and includes a quick shot at President George W. Bush. Fair & Square won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album contains original songs plus two covers: A.P. Carter's "Bear Creek Blues" and Blaze Foley's "Clay Pigeons."
On June 22, 2010, Oh Boy Records released a tribute album titled Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine. The album features members of the modern folk revival including My Morning Jacket, The Avett Brothers, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lambchop, Josh Ritter, Drive-By Truckers, Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins, Deer Tick featuring Liz Isenberg, Justin Townes Earle, Those Darlins, and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.
In 2016, Prine was named winner of the PEN/Song Lyrics Award, given to two songwriters every other year by the PEN New England chapter. The 2016 award was shared with Tom Waits and his songwriting collaborator wife Kathleen Brennan. Judges for the award included Peter Wolf, Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and others, as well as literary judge Salman Rushdie. In 2016, Prine released For Better, or Worse, a follow-up to In Spite of Ourselves from 1999. The album featured country music covers featuring some of the most prominent female voices in the genre including Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack among others, as well as Iris DeMent, the only artist to be featured on both albums.
On March 15, 2017 The American Currents exhibit opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The exhibit featured a pair of cowboy boots and jacket that he often wore on stage, his personal guitar and the original handwritten lyric to his hit, "Angel From Montgomery." The American Currents Class of 2016 showcased artists who made a significant impact on country music in 2016, including Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini, Ross Copperman, The Earls of Leicester, Brett Eldredge, Florida Georgia Line, Mickey Guyton, Natalie Hemby, Sierra Hull, Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, Jim Lauderdale, Shane McAnally, Lori McKenna, William Michael Morgan, Maren Morris, Jon Pardi, Dolly Parton, Margo Price, John Prine, RaeLynn, Chris and Morgane Stapleton and Randy Travis. Prine won his second Artist of the Year award at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards after previously winning in 2005.
On February 8, 2018, Prine announced his first new album of original material in 13 years, titled The Tree of Forgiveness, would be released on April 13. Produced by Dave Cobb, the album was released on Prine's own Oh Boy Records and features guest artists Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Dan Auerbach and Brandi Carlile. Alongside the announcement, Prine released the track "Summer's End". The album became Prine's highest-charting album on the Billboard 200.
In early 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck. He had major surgery to remove a substantial amount of diseased tissue, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. The surgery removed a piece of his neck and severed a few nerves in his tongue, while the radiation damaged some salivary glands. A year of recuperation and speech therapy was necessary before he could perform again. The operation altered his vocals, and has added a gravelly tone to his voice.
In 2013, Prine learned he had cancer in his left lung and underwent surgery to remove it. After the surgery, a physical therapist put him through an unusual workout to build stamina: Prine was required to run up and down his house stairs, grab his guitar while still out of breath and sing two songs. Six months later, he was touring again.
On March 29, 2020, Prine's family announced that had been hospitalized on March 26 after suddenly experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19. He was intubated on the evening of March 28, and remains in critical condition.
Prine is widely regarded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation.
In 2009, Bob Dylan told The Huffington Post that Prine was one of his favorite writers, stating "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. 'Sam Stone' featuring the wonderfully evocative line: 'There’s a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.' 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."
Johnny Cash, in his autobiography Cash, wrote, "I don't listen to music much at the farm, unless I'm going into songwriting mode and looking for inspiration. Then I'll put on something by the writers I've admired and used for years--Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Guy Clark, and the late Steve Goodman are my Big Four..."
Roger Waters, when asked by Word Magazine in 2008 if he heard Pink Floyd's influence in newer British bands like Radiohead, replied, "I don't really listen to Radiohead. I listened to the albums and they just didn't move me in the way, say, John Prine does. His is just extraordinarily eloquent music—and he lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon."
2004 saw Prine's song "Sam Stone" covered by Laura Cantrell for the Future Soundtrack for America compilation.
Awards and honors
The Grammy Awards are annually presented by The Recording Academy for outstanding achievements and artistic excellence in the recording arts. Prine has won two Grammy Awards out of eleven nominations.
|1972||John Prine||Best New Artist||Nominated|
|1986||German Afternoons||Best Contemporary Folk Recording||Nominated|
|1988||John Prine Live||Best Contemporary Folk Recording||Nominated|
|1991||The Missing Years||Best Contemporary Folk Album||Won|
|1995||Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings||Best Contemporary Folk Album||Nominated|
|1997||Live on Tour||Best Contemporary Folk Album||Nominated|
|1999||In Spite of Ourselves||Best Contemporary Folk Album||Nominated|
|2005||Fair & Square||Best Contemporary Folk Album||Won|
|2018||The Tree of Forgiveness||Best Americana Album||Nominated|
|"Summer's End"||Best Americana Roots Song||Nominated|
|"Knockin' On Your Screen Door"||Best Americana Roots Song||Nominated|
- During 2005 at the request of U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, John Prine became the first singer/songwriter to read and perform at the Library of Congress.
|Year||Album||Peak chart positions||Label|
|1972||Diamonds in the Rough||148||—||—||—||—|
|1976||Prime Prine: The Best of John Prine||196||—||—||—||—|
|1984||Aimless Love||—||—||—||—||—||Oh Boy|
|1988||John Prine Live||—||—||—||—||—|
|1991||The Missing Years||—||—||—||—||—|
|1993||Great Days: The John Prine Anthology||—||—||—||—||—||Rhino|
|A John Prine Christmas||—||—||—||—||—||Oh Boy|
|1995||Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings||159||—||—||—||—|
|1997||Live on Tour||—||—||—||—||—|
|1999||In Spite of Ourselves||197||21||—||—||—|
|2005||Fair & Square||55||—||2||—||—|
|2007||Standard Songs for Average People
|2010||In Person & On Stage||85||—||—||27||1|
|2011||Singing Mailman Delivers||94||—||20||22||4|
|2016||For Better, or Worse||30||2||7||—||5|
|2018||The Tree of Forgiveness||5||2||2||2||1|
|1992||"Sweet Suzanne"||Buzzin' Cousins||68||Falling from Grace soundtrack|
|2013||"Yes We Will"||Maria Doyle Kennedy||-||Sing|
|2001||John Prine – Live from Sessions at West 54th||Oh Boy Records Music Video|
|1992||"Picture Show"||Jim Shea|
|"Sweet Suzanne"||Marty Callner|
|1993||"Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness" (featuring Nanci Griffith)||Rocky Schenck|
|1995||"Ain't Hurtin' Nobody"||Jim Shea|
|2016||"Fish and Whistle (Lyric Video)"||Northman Creative|
|2016||"I'm Telling You"
(featuring Holly Williams)
|Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard|
|2016||"Color of the Blues" featuring Susan Tedeschi||Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard|
|2017||"Sweet Revenge"||Oh Boy Records|
|2017||"In Spite of Ourselves"||Oh Boy Records|
|2018||"The Road to 'The Tree of Forgiveness'"||Oh Boy Records|
|2018||"Knockin' On Your Screen Door"||David McClister|
|2018||"Knockin' On Your Screen Door (Lyric Video)"||David McClister|
|2018||"God Only Knows (Lyric Video)"||Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard|
|2018||"Summer's End"||Kerrin Sheldon and Elaine McMillion Sheldon|
|2018||"Summer's End (Lyric Video)"||Oh Boy Records|
|2018||"When I Get to Heaven (Lyric Video)"||Oh Boy Records|
|2018||"Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)"||Oh Boy Records|
|2019||"My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight"||Oh Boy Records|