John Prine Dead at 73

The iconic American singer-songwriter passed of COVID-19 complications

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Apr 8, 2020

American singer-songwriter John Prine has died. Prine's family confirmed his passing of complications from COVID-19. He was 73.

Prine's family had announced his hospitalization late last month, sharing that the artist suddenly developed symptoms ahead of being placed in critical care and intubated.

Prine's wife Fiona also tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in March. In an update March 30, she shared news of her recovery while noting Prine's stable condition.

"This is hard news for us to share," the family wrote on behalf of the Prine. "But so many of you have loved and supported John over the years, we wanted to let you know, and give you the chance to send on more of that love and support now. And know that we love you, and John loves you."

Prine is widely considered one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and was admired by contemporaries including Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. "If God's got a favorite songwriter, I think it's John Prine," Kristofferson said in 2003.

"Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism," Dylan said of the songwriter in a 2009 interview. "Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs..."Sam Stone"..."Donald and Lydia,"...Nobody but Prine could write like that."

Of Prine's influence, Johnny Cash wrote In his 1997 autobiography Cash, "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..."

Born in Illinois in 1946, Prine began playing guitar at age 14, and wrote early songs while working as a mailman. He was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, and was sent to work as a mechanical engineer in West Germany before returning to Chicago to deliver mail. Recalling his service time to Rolling Stone in 2017, Prine described his contribution as "drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks."

Upon returning to the United States in 1967, Prine began performing around Chicago and became a key artist in the city's folk scene. A young Roger Ebert witnessed a performance in 1970 and wrote a review titled "Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message In a Few Words," which soon led to sold-out rooms.

Kris Kristofferson also saw a young Prine perform in the summer of 1971, and would later recall in the liner notes for Prine's debut album how "by the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must've been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene."

Kristofferson would then invite Prine to perform for an industry heavy audience in New York, and the songwriter was offered a $25,000 deal by Atlantic Records President Jerry Wexler the next day. "This is my first night in New York, so it was like Oz to me," Prine recalled in 2017.

Prine would release his self-titled studio debut through Atlantic in 1971. The album features revered catalogue staples "Sam Stone," a song about a Purple Heart veteran's death by overdose, and "Angel From Montgomery," which would go on to be covered by John Denver, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews Band, Old Crow Medicine Show and more.

Prine would release sophomore album Diamonds in the Rough in 1972, and would follow that with 1973's Sweet Revenge and 1975's Common Sense ahead of moving to Asylum Records. He would release three records for the label — 1978's Bruised Orange, 1979's Pink Cadillac and 1980's Storm Windows ahead of co-founding Oh Boy Records. Each of Prine's releases since 1984's Aimless Love have arrived through the label.

Prine's 1992 album, The Missing Years, earned him his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The record was produced by Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, and featured bandmates Tom Petty, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell in addition to Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Everly.

Prine would win two total Grammys out of eleven nominations across his career. His second would come with 2005's Fair and Square capturing the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. His work has also been lauded by the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Americana Music Honors & Awards, the Grammy Hall of Fame and many others.

Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in the late 90's, after finding a cancerous growth on his neck in 1996. "I felt fine," he would later say. "It doesn't hit you until you pull up to the hospital and you see 'cancer' in big letters, and you're the patient. Then it all kind of comes home."

A 1998 surgery would see the tumor removed along with a piece of Prine's neck, changing his appearance. Following surgery, he felt weak and that his voice was not as powerful, leading him to take over a year away from performing before booking a small club show in Tennessee as a trial run.

"The crowd was with me. Boy, were they with me," he would later recall to Rolling Stone. "And I think I shook everybody's hand afterward. I knew right then and there that I could do it."

Prine's eighteenth and final studio album was 2018's The Tree of Forgiveness, which marked his first album of original material in 13 years. Produced by Dave Cobb, the album includes songs Prine co-wrote with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Phil Spector, and features guest vocals from Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile.

In 2010, Prine's Oh Boy Records released Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, featuring covers by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Lambchop, Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick and more.

Last month, Prine appeared on Swamp Dogg's Sorry You Couldn't Make It album, guesting on both "Memories" with Justin Vernon and "Please Let Me Go Round Again."

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