John Prine in 2009
Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns
John Prine Was The Master Of Lyrical Economy
John Prine got his most famous acknowledgment from Bob Dylan, who praised his songs as "Proustian existentialism" and “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree” in a 2009 HuffPost interview. While any songwriter would give their fretting hand for a Dylan cosign, his remark only tells half the story of Prine’s abilities.
"I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know,” the two-time GRAMMY-winning Prine told Rolling Stone in 2015 while applauding his friend and protégé Jason Isbell. "I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them — every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do."
By embargoing unnecessary language and rarely straying from the G, C, and D shapes on the guitar, Prine filled his classic albums, like 1971’s John Prine, 1973’s Sweet Revenge and 1978’s Bruised Orange, with songs that beamed from soul to soul with virtually no interference.
Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic cost Nashville perhaps its keenest lyrical craftsman when Prine died Tuesday (April 7) of complications due to the coronavirus. He was 73.
"We join the world in mourning the passing of revered country and folk singer/songwriter John Prine," interim Recording Academy President/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said in a statement. "John earned 11 GRAMMY nominations and received two GRAMMY Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album, one for The Missing Years at the 34th GRAMMYs and another for Fair & Square at the 48th GRAMMYs. His self-titled debut album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2015, and just recently he was announced as a 2020 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for his contributions to music during his nearly five-decade career. Widely lauded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, John's impact will continue to inspire musicians for years to come. We send our deepest condolences to his loved ones."
Prine’s gift for musical economy took root years before he made a record. In 1964, the country singer Roger Miller released novelty singles "Dang Me," which won four GRAMMYs including Best Country & Western Song, and "Chug-a-Lug," which peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Both songs, Prine later said, were influential on his silly, unassuming style.
"I loved the way he put words together," Prine said in the 1986 book Written In My Soul: Rock’s Great Songwriters Talk About Creating Their Music. “The sounds of the words, whether they made sense or not, whether it sounded like nonsense, it’d just really get to me.”
Years later, Prine wrote his self-titled debut album partly while delivering mail in his hometown. "Hello in There" paints a portrait of senior-citizen neglect with strokes both subtle ("She sits and stares through the back-door screen") and broad ("Old trees just grow stronger…but old people just grow lonesome”) — exploring a complex theme without getting pedantic or using 10-dollar words.
"Sam Stone," another John Prine cut about a veteran with a monkey on his back, featured two lines honed to an uncomfortably fine point: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose."
While singing the future wartime anthem at his first-ever live performance, a 1969 open mic night at Chicago’s Fifth Peg, he was greeted with silence and glares. (When Johnny Cash, a devout Christian, covered "Sam Stone" in 1987, he changed the line to the immortally awkward "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.")
As a counterweight to John Prine’s serious subjects, Prine injected silly rhymes and turns of phrase that would make Miller proud: "Well done / Hot dog bun / My sister’s a nun," he drawled in the album’s opener "lllegal Smile." "Turns out that topless lady had something up her sleeve," he noted in the hilarious "Spanish Pipedream."
Sweet Revenge lightened up even further, leaving Prine free to play in his lyrical sandbox. Goofy last will and testament "Please Don’t Bury Me" throws a volley of one-liners that’ll make your head spin, the throwaway “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” wrings comedy out of its oxymoronic title, and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” packs an astonishing level of detail about its Camel-smoking subject into two minutes and change.
Bruised Orange is closer to the "mind-trips" that Dylan described while keeping the song lengths as tight as ever. The title track blooms a message about holding onto bitterness from a childhood memory of an altar boy’s death. "That’s the Way the World Goes Round" takes two verses — one about a local knucklehead, one about himself — and binds them with a chorus about things we can’t control.
There are similarly gratifying miniatures on every Prine album. The title track to 1980’s Storm Windows gradually absorbs a wintry scene before offering seven words of eternal wisdom: "Time don’t fly / It bounds and leaps." "All The Best,” a commentary on divorce from 1991’s The Missing Years, takes last-ditch metaphors of Christmas cards and snowmen and renders them unforgettable.
His final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, was no different. "Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)" uses granddad humor to warn against acting before thinking, “Summer’s End” evokes a long sundown with a small handful of words, and closer "When I Get to Heaven" is a short list of what he’s doing now in the afterlife, namely drinking a vodka-and-ginger and smoking a cigarette nine miles long.
Prine may have passed the torch to a new generation including Isbell, but his absence as song-whittler is sorely missed. Lesser songwriters build monuments to themselves, but he understood the value of finding diamonds in the rough.