BREAKING: John Prine Succumbs To Coronavirus

John Prine

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member John Prine passed away on Tuesday, April 7 at age 73, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center due to complications from COVID-19, a spokesperson for the Prine family has confirmed to MusicRow.com.

Following a sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, he was hospitalized on Thursday, March 26. On Saturday, he was placed on a ventilator and listed in critical condition. His wife/manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, was diagnosed earlier and had quarantined herself from her husband since he was at risk. John Prine was a two-time cancer survivor and had other health issues weakening his immune system.

Prine was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. He wrote or co-wrote such hits as Don Williams’ “Love Is on a Roll,” Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel From Montgomery,” Lynn Anderson’s “Paradise” and George Strait’s “I Just Want to Dance with You.” But his true importance is measured by his influence on other artists and their universally held respect for him.

During a five-decade, 25-album career, the singer-songwriter amassed a devoted cult following. Two of his albums won Grammy Awards. The Americana Music Association named him an Artist of the Year in 2005 and 2017. BMI gave him its Troubadour Award in 2018. He was a pioneer in self-marketing music via his own label.

John Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. He wrote his first songs at age 14. Prine worked as a mailman in the Windy City throughout the 1960s. In 1970, he performed at an open-mic night at the Chicago folk club The Fifth Peg.

Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (1948-1984) saw him and became Prine’s champion. He brought Kris Kristofferson to a Prine show at The Earl of Old Town in the summer of 1971. Also in the audience were pop star Paul Anka and actress Angela Lansbury.

At The Bitter End in New York, new fan Kristofferson introduced Prine’s music to Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler (1917-2008). Wexler signed Prine the next day.

John Prine appeared as the troubadour’s debut LP in 1971. He would perform many of its songs for the rest of his life. They included the chilling army-veteran portrait “Sam Stone,” the wry “Illegal Smile” and the “blow up your TV” song “Spanish Pipe Dream.” Bette Midler popularized its old-folks ode “Hello in There.” Raitt made “Angel From Montgomery” her own, although John Denver, Carly Simon, Tanya Tucker, Old Crow Medicine Show and others have recorded it.

“Paradise” was the collection’s most popular song. It has been recorded by The Everly Brothers, Jackie DeShannon, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Dwight Yoakam, John Fogerty and dozens of bluegrass bands. In 1975, Lynn Anderson made it a mid-sized country hit. The John Prine album was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.

He followed it with 1972’s spare, folk-flavored Diamonds in the Rough. Its “Souvenirs” was sung by Goodman, The Country Gentlemen and Maggie Bell, among others. “The Late John Garfield Blues” was recorded by his benefactor Kristofferson. John Prine was nominated as 1972’s Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards.

Sweet Revenge appeared in 1973. This included such perennial Prine favorites as “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “Christmas in Prison” and “Dear Abby.” Its “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” was recorded by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Lonesome Standard Time.

In 1975, David Allan Coe had a hit with “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” Prine co-wrote it with Goodman, but refused to take any credit so that his leukemia stricken pal could earn more royalties.

Steve Cropper produced 1975’s Common Sense. Joining Prine on the record were J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, Goodman and Raitt. He closed out his Atlantic tenure with Prime Prine, a best-of collection. That 1976 LP is now the artist’s only Gold Record.

He embarked on a rigorous touring schedule, building up a loyal fan base by staying on the road for up to nine months of the year. He also began spending time in Nashville with Jack Clement (1931-2013).

His recording contract was picked up by Asylum. He made his debut on the label with 1978’s folk-rock collection Bruised Orange. Produced by Goodman, it included “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round,” later cut by Miranda Lambert, Norah Jones and Green on Red.

Pink Cadillac (1979) was Prine’s Memphis rockabilly album. Storm Windows (1980) was recorded in Muscle Shoals. John Prine moved to Nashville in 1980. Fed up with major labels, he formed his own Oh Boy Records with manager Al Bunetta (1943-2015). His debut for it was a 1982 holiday single, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

In 1983, country superstar Don Williams gave Prine his first No. 1 hit, “Love Is on a Roll.” The songwriter co-wrote it with Nashville tunesmith Roger Cook. “Jackie O” was a collaboration with John Mellencamp on the rock star’s 1983 Platinum album Uh-Huh.

Prine’s first Oh Boy LP was 1984’s Aimless Love, primarily recorded at Clement’s studio in Nashville by co-producer Jim Rooney. Its song “Unwed Fathers,” co-written with Bobby Braddock, was popularized by Tammy Wynette, Gail Davies and Johnny Cash.

Steve Goodman died in 1984, just as his “City of New Orleans” was becoming a standard. Prine sang Goodman’s songs in concert throughout the rest of his own life.

The Grammy-nominated German Afternoons (1986) repeated the Aimless Love studio recipe and included two more Prine evergreens. “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” was sung by Nanci Griffith, Kim Carnes, Amos Lee and Gove. “I Just Want to Dance with You,” co-written with Cook, became a 1998 No. 1 hit for George Strait.

A long hiatus followed German Afternoons, interrupted only by his single “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” (1987) and a live CD (1988).

For his return, Prine teamed up with Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers on 1991’s The Missing Years. Its cast included Bruce Springsteen, Phil Everly, David Lindley, Petty, Raitt and producer Howie Epstein (1955-2003). The album earned John Prine his first Grammy Award. Its song “All the Best” was covered by the Zac Brown Band in 2017.

Rhino Records saluted him with a 1993 boxed set titled Great Days: The John Prine Anthology. Epstein re-teamed with the songwriter for 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.

In Spite of Ourselves (1999) was an acclaimed album of country classics recorded in Nashville as duets with Trisha Yearwood, Connie Smith, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless and other female artists. The CD’s title tune was sung with Iris DeMent. It was included on the soundtrack of Daddy & Them (2001), a film which featured Prine on screen alongside Billy Bob Thornton.

He re-recorded many of his early favorites for Souvenirs (2000) so that Oh Boy would have its own versions. In addition to Prine and Goodman, the company also issued works by Kristofferson, Todd Snider, Donnie Fritts, Shawn Camp and more.

John Prine was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. The following year, he contributed his rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” to Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. The collection won a folk Grammy Award.

Fair & Square (2005) earned Prine his own Grammy, his second. The CDs cast included Camp, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Mindy Smith, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Tyminski, among others.

On 2007’s Standard Songs for Average People, he sang vintage tunes with Mac Wiseman (1925-2019). Oh Boy issued a multi-artist tribute CD to Prine in 2010. The Singing Mailman Delivers (2011) contained performances taped in 1970 prior to his commercial debut.

For Better Or Worse (2016) was a sequel to In Spite of Ourselves, this time pairing Prine with Lee Ann Womack, Kathy Mattea, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Krauss and more.

In 2018, John Prine released his first new collection of original material in 13 years. Titled The Tree of Forgiveness, it became his highest-charting Billboard album, was nominated for three Grammys and spawned eight promotional videos.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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