John Prine | photo by John Kurc | courtesy of artist
R.I.P. songwriting icon John Prine; watch videos of his 2004 Philadelphia Folk Festival appearance
Last week, Prine’s family shared that he was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, an asked fans to send their love his way. The response from across the music world was profound; Kurt Vile, who often cited Prine as an influence, wrote “Please pray for John and his family. Love beyond words.” Kacey Musgraves, who wrote a song called “Burn One With John Prine,” Tweeted, “To say he’s special to me is an extreme understatement.”
Born in Maywood, Illinois, Prine served in the Vietnam War in the mid-60s, and returned home to settle in Chicago, where he got a mail carrier job and began frequented the city’s open mic circuit. It was at a venue called The Fifth Peg that he was discovered by Kris Kristofferson in 1970, and what follows was a success story for the books: a few weeks later, Kristofferson invited him onstage at a New York show at the Greenwich Village club The Bitter End and told the crowd “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy. John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.” A record executive was in the audience, and signed Prine to Atlantic Records the next day.
His debut album, released in 1971, is packed with his best-known classics — the plaintive “Illegal Smile,” the protest song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and the resplendent “Angel From Montgomery,” which has been covered countless times over the years — notably in the XPN world by Amos Lee and Bonnie Raitt during NonCOMM in 2016.
Over the ensuing 50 years, Prine released another 17 albums with notable songs like “Souviners,” “Six O’Clock News,” and “The Late John Garfield Blues.” His 1992 album featured appearances from Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, and his most recent album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was released in 2018, and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album (Brandy Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You took home the trophy that year); last year, he was inducted in the songwriters hall of fame.
Prine made countless Philadelphia appearances over the years, most recently a 2018 gig at the Merriam Theater; a particularly beautiful 2004 set at Philadelphia Folk Festival is up on YouTube. Watch below.