EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published on April 6. On April 7, John Prine passed away due to complications related to COVID-19. Read more from NPR Music here.
John Prine didn’t need to get sick to remind his fans of how much they love and respect his work.
He’s been scaring us for years.
Prine had neck cancer in 1998 and followed that up with lung cancer in 2013. He had to transpose many of his songs to fit his new post-surgery vocal range. He even concluded his latest album, 2018’s “Tree of Forgiveness,” with a song called “When I Get To Heaven.”
At 73, John Prine has reached the age you might have expected him to be when he released his self-titled debut album in 1970.
“Hello In There” speaks to the all-too-frequent isolation experienced by our elderly. “Sam Stone” addresses the plight of veterans with drug problems. “Paradise” recounts the decimation of his father’s hometown by strip mining. Those songs, along with the crowd favorite “Illegal Smile,” are all on side one.
“Angel from Montgomery,” written by Prine but most closely associated with Bonnie Raitt, is just one of a series of standout songs on side two.
It’s a tour de force, especially considering he was 23 at the time.
His career had a humble beginning. A stint in the military behind him, Prine took a job delivering mail, often writing songs during breaks on his route.
He hadn’t been performing in Chicago clubs very long when his friend Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka to see him play. Days later Prine was signed to Atlantic Records.
After seven albums, including three on Asylum Records, Prine found himself at a crossroads. Tons of great songs but no radio hits and small sales by major label standards led to him being dropped in 1980.
After fielding offers from labels big (Columbia) and small (Sugar Hill), Prine and his manager Al Bunetta started Nashville’s first independent label, Oh Boy Records in 1981.
At the time this was an unprecedented move — the World Wide Web was nine years away and Amazon wouldn’t be founded until 1994. His dedicated fan base was left to check under “P” in the CD racks of independent record stores on the off chance he’d released new music.
Many became fans through word of mouth, and that escalated over the years. Prine continued touring to bigger and bigger crowds. Artists cited him as a primary influence. Over time, John Prine became Americana royalty.
Other artists followed Prine’s lead in forming their own labels, enough that businesses like Thirty Tigers emerged to offer label-like services to the indie startups. In fact, Thirty Tigers helped Oh Boy in the release of “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
Prine’s legacy could easily be his role as a cornerstone of independent music if it weren’t for the songs.
The songs overshadow everything else.
Prine inhabits his characters, whether it’s a weary middle-aged woman filled with longing (“Angel From Montgomery”) or a real-life child star from India trapped in the frigid upper Midwest (“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone”). His songs can be achingly sad, quirky and playful, or in some cases, both.
His epic, “Lake Marie,” poetically juxtaposes a crumbling marriage (written at a time his own marriage was falling apart) against an unrelated — except for locale — double homicide.
“Fish and Whistle,” along with “That’s the Way The World Goes Round,” suggest a whimsical, zen-like approach to the difficulties of life.
His career can also be marked by a remarkable consistency. It’s hard to press the skip button on a Prine album.
John Prine’s songs have moved so many of us. His catalog is endorsed by the many artists who have covered him. It is easy to imagine Prine’s songs outlasting all of us, becoming standards of the Great American Songbook for decades to come.
—With a more than 40-year career in radio, Jon Hart helped bring The Bridge to Kansas City in 2014. He currently serves as The Bridge's Music Director and resident music expert. Catch Jon on weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.