A onetime Army mechanic and mail carrier who wrote songs rooted in the experiences of
lower-middle-class life, Mr. Prine rose to prominence almost by accident. He was at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg one night in 1969, complaining about the performers, when someone challenged him to get onstage, saying, “You get up and try.”
Emboldened by a few beers, he picked up his guitar and sang three of his original songs. Within a year, he released his first album and was hailed as one of the foremost lyricists of his time, even as a musical heir to Bob Dylan.
He went on to record more than 20 albums, win three competitive Grammy Awards and help define a genre of music that came to be called Americana. He was a significant influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters, including Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who called him “the closest thing I could imagine to ever being around Mark Twain.”
Mr. Prine, 73, died April 7 in Nashville of complications from the novel coronavirus, the media relations firm Sacks & Co. said on behalf of his family. He overcame throat cancer in the 1990s and lung cancer in 2013.
The three tunes Mr. Prine sang at his debut performance in Chicago were written during his breaks while delivering mail. All became classics in the singer-songwriter tradition: “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam vet returning home with a drug habit; “Hello in There,” about the emotional loneliness of older people; and “Paradise,” an autobiographical lament about his family’s Kentucky hometown, plowed under to make way for strip mines.
Not long after he received a glowing review from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, Mr. Prine quit his job with the Postal Service. His supervisor told him, “You’ll be back.”
His songs about blue-collar woes and hard-luck lives soon attracted a devoted following, which included Dylan, who described Mr. Prine’s work as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
When Mr. Prine was a 24-year-old mail carrier, he received a career boost from his friend Steve Goodman, a Chicago musician who wrote “The City of New Orleans.” Goodman persuaded singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson to listen to Mr. Prine after hours at a Chicago club. After listening to about seven songs, Kristofferson asked Mr. Prine to play them all again.
“He was unlike anybody I’d ever seen — such a young kid, and yet he’s writing songs like ‘Hello in There,’ ” Kristofferson told The Washington Post in 2005. “John was singing some of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and they still are the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
In “Hello in There,” an old man reflects on his life and its litany of sorrows: “We lost Davy in the Korean War, and I still don’t know what for, it don’t matter anymore.”
In the song’s chorus, Mr. Prine sings, “Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
From the beginning, he combined pathos and humor, the lyrical and the satirical. One of his more high-spirited tunes, “Illegal Smile,” was interpreted as a nod to marijuana. Another was a spoof of the letters to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren:
Dear Abby, Dear Abby . . .
My fountain pen leaks,
My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks.
Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed,
If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.
“He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people,” Ted Kooser, the 2005 poet laureate of the United States, said of Mr. Prine. “He did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Vietnam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ ”
“Sam Stone” is a chilling ballad about a wounded veteran with the gravity of a three-act play. Mr. Prine describes the vet coming home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back” and how “the morphine eased the pain” of his physical and psychic wounds.
A recurring chorus suggests the poignant view of a child growing up too soon: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin,’ I suppose.”
Some listeners were offended by the invocation of Jesus in a song about drug addiction, but Mr. Prine said he was “just trying to think of something as hopeless” as a Vietnam vet succumbing to his private demons.
“You write a song about something that you think might be taboo,” he told Rolling Stone, “you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it.”
His 1971 debut album, titled simply “John Prine,” received strong reviews — “he squeezes poetry out of the anguished longing of empty lives,” a Time magazine critic wrote — but modest sales.
Other performers recognized his talent, however, and Bette Midler and Joan Baez both recorded “Hello in There.” The Everly Brothers did a version of “Paradise,” and Johnny Cash sang “Sam Stone” (omitting the line about Jesus). Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty did background vocals for Mr. Prine’s 1992 album “The Missing Years,” and Bonnie Raitt had a memorable interpretation of “Angel From Montgomery,” which Mr. Prine wrote from the perspective of a woman regretting the missed opportunities in life.
His unadorned melodies were effective vehicles for introspective lyrics drawn from everyday sources. A haunting line from “Sam Stone” — “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios” — was inspired by an Army buddy whose radio was held together with electrical tape.
When he wrote “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring?” for the 1971 song “Far From Me,” Mr. Prine said he recalled an image from childhood of broken glass sparkling in the city dump near his house.
“I don’t know of a better thing to follow as a writer than what your gut instinct tells you,” he said. “That’s where everything springs from.”
John Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Ill., one of four sons. His father was a factory worker and a union official, his mother a homemaker.
His grandfather had played guitar with the Everly Brothers’ father in Kentucky, and Mr. Prine’s own father enjoyed listening to the music of Hank Williams.
“I used to just sit and watch how he would be so moved by the songs,” Mr. Prine told the Los Angeles Times. “In fact, I might have been more affected by the way the songs touched him than by the songs themselves — they seemed to have such power.”
When he was 14, Mr. Prine learned to play guitar from his older brother Dave. Two of his brothers became musicians, and another was a police officer.
After completing high school, Mr. Prine was drafted into the Army and served in Germany, where he said he spent his time “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” He returned to the Chicago suburbs and took a job with the Postal Service.
Mr. Prine’s music reflected his abiding connection to Kentucky, the birthplace of both of his parents. One of his most enduring songs, “Paradise,” is about the town in western Kentucky “where all my relatives came from,” uprooted in the 1960s by strip mines and a power plant:
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.
Before moving to Nashville in 1980, Mr. Prine had recorded seven albums for major labels, both of which dropped him. He launched his own record company, Oh Boy, which allowed him to pursue a more casual approach. He kept expenses down by driving himself to concert venues. His contract “riders” rejected expensive catering options in favor of supermarket deli platters, a bottle of vodka and Orange Crush soda.
Over the years, Mr. Prine experimented with musical styles, from raw country to hard-charging rockabilly, but his greatest gift was his ability to draw deep emotions from simple lyrics. “Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see,” he wrote in one of his early songs, “Souvenirs.” “That’s why last night and this mornin’ / Always look the same to me.”
He framed one of his most complex songs, “Lake Marie,” from the 1995 album “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” as a virtual epic. In his 2017 book, “Beyond Words,” he said he wanted the song to begin with a spoken verse, delivered as a history lesson, about two lakes named for baby girls found abandoned in the woods.
With casual but memorable lines — “the wind was blowing, especially through her hair” — the song shifts to became the story of a couple “trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever seemed easier.”
Mr. Prine’s first two marriages, to Ann Carole Menaloscino and musician Rachel Peer, ended in divorce. (“Divorces have a way of turning into memorable songs for me,” he said.) In 1993, he married Fiona Whelan, who became his manager. They had two sons, and he adopted her son from a previous relationship. Fiona Whelan Prine said she also contracted the coronavirus.
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Prine is survived by two brothers and three grandchildren.
Mr. Prine received Grammy Awards for best contemporary folk album for “The Missing Years” (1991) and “Fair & Square” (2005) and received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2015. He was named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 and earlier this year received the Grammy for lifetime achievement.
In the late 1990s, he underwent surgery and radiation treatment for cancer in his throat. He quit smoking, and the operation left his head tilted at a noticeable angle. His voice deepened into a growling baritone, as weathered and scarred as his music. Part of a lung was removed after another bout of cancer in 2013.
In 2018, Mr. Prine released his first album of new music in 13 years. The 10 songs on “The Tree of Forgiveness” (some written with collaborators) showed the same blend of humor, sorrow and outrage that had long been his hallmark. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart and No. 5 on the pop chart, giving the 72-year-old Mr. Prine the biggest hit record of his career.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to describe the world the way I wished it would be,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s why when I finish a song, I’ll sit back and look at it and think, ‘Now if you could only practice some of those things in your own life . . . you wouldn’t have to write all these damn songs.’ ”
Read more Washington Post obituaries