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Singer-Songwriter John Prine Dies At 73

Apr 8, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 11:58 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of America's most beloved songwriters, John Prine, has died of complications from COVID-19. He was 73 years old. Bob Dylan might have put it best. He once said Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism, Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. Bob Dylan continued, nobody but Prine could write like that. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: John Prine songs sounded like John Prine's America - working class, generous, homespun and heartfelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO IN THERE")

JOHN PRINE: (Singing) You know that old trees just grow stronger and old rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, hello in there. Hello.

ULABY: Prine looked back on his storied 50-year career on WHYY's Fresh Air in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRINE: I didn't expect to do this for a living, being a recording artist. I was just playing music for the fun of it. And it was kind of my escape from the humdrum of the world.

ULABY: Prine was working as a mailman in 1970 when he was discovered playing guitar in clubs in Chicago. He'd recently gotten out of the Army, and he said delivering mail actually had some creative advantages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRINE: It was great because there's really not much to do when you're a mailman. I used to liken my mail route to a library with no books. My imagination was free to roam. I wrote a lot of my first record walking on the mail route.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PRINE'S "ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY")

ULABY: His gentle melodies, humor and honesty immediately caught the attention of critics with songs that became classics, like the protest ballad "Sam Stone" and "Angel From Montgomery."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY")

PRINE: (Singing) If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire, this old house would've burnt down a long time ago.

ULABY: Prine's most personal song on that album was named for the small Kentucky town where his mother was born. But he wrote the song "Paradise" for his dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARADISE")

PRINE: (Singing) And, Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County down by the Green River where Paradise lay? Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking. Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.

ULABY: Prine's father died of a massive heart attack before the album came out. But Prine got a chance to play the song for him at home. At one point, he said, his dad just got up and walked away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRINE: He said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox. But I think he just didn't want me to see him with tears in his eyes.

ULABY: John Prine's music moved a lot of people. He was revered by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Bonnie Raitt recorded his music; so did Bette Midler. Prine's voice got even huskier after a 1998 cancer surgery that removed part of his neck. Yet he kept singing and recording, releasing his last album on his own label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN")

PRINE: When I get to heaven, I'm going to shake God's hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand.

ULABY: The label and the record were a family affair. Prine's wife Fiona and his son Jody ran the business. And you can hear Jody and Prine's little baby grandson on this song, "When I Get To Heaven."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).

PRINE: That's him giggling. He's giggling because his dad is chasing him around the room. And if you listen real carefully, you can hear Jody go - don't break anything expensive, he says to him.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

ULABY: Shortly before John Prine died, his family posted a statement on social media, telling fans the singer was in critical condition. Know that John loves you, they wrote. With every song he gave us, John Prine let us know he did. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN")

PRINE: (Singing) 'Cause then I'm going to get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.