But Prine, then a letter carrier in his 20s who wrote songs while on breaks from his day job, was still inspired by the suggestion.
“I thought for a while and said, ‘How 'bout a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is?’ ” he told writer Paul Zollo in an interview for a 2016 book “More Songwriters on Songwriting.”
His friend wasn’t interested. “Naw,” Prine remembered him responding.
The idea stuck with Prine, and by the time he got home later that night, an image had taken root in his mind.
“I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands and just walking away from it all,” he said.
With that, Prine got to work and he already knew exactly what the song’s opening line would be.
“I am an old woman named after my mother.”
“Angel From Montgomery,” “Hello In There,” and many of Prine’s other hits were on the forefront of people’s minds Tuesday night after news broke that the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, a defining figure of the Americana genre, had died at the age of 73 in Nashville due to complications from the novel coronavirus.
Fans flooded social media with clips of Prine performing “Angel From Montgomery,” as well as covers done by scores of other prominent musicians ranging from legends such as Bonnie Raitt and John Denver to newer stars like Maggie Rogers.
Oh John Prine, thank you for making me laugh and breaking my heart and sharing your boundless humanity. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This is one of the most gorgeous songs ever written. Bonnie Raitt& John Prine - Angel From Montgomery https://t.co/rxSnzo4QhT via @YouTube— Bradley Whitford (@BradleyWhitford) April 8, 2020
“His words and melodies draw chuckles and blood, and tears of sorrow and redemption, all leading to truths widely known but never before articulated,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement Tuesday. “John’s mind was a treasure chest, open to us all. We mourn his passing, even as we hold the treasure.”
For many, “Angel From Montgomery,” featured on Prine’s self-titled debut album in 1971, was one of the songs that best captured the musician’s unparalleled ability to write poignant lyrics about old people when he was young, and women when he wasn’t one.
“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,” the young songwriter sang of a lonely elderly couple in “Hello In There.” “And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day/ Old people just grow lonesome/ Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Prine explained best himself.
“If you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented,” he told Zollo.
While writing “Angel From Montgomery,” Prine said he envisioned a woman living in Montgomery, Ala., who “wanted to get out of there.”
“She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything,” he said. “She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from all this.” Then, Prine said he just “let the character write the song.”
“Once I’ve got an outline, a sketch in my mind, of who the person was, then I figure I’d better let them speak for themselves,” he said. “Rather than me saying, ‘Hey, so here’s a middle-aged woman. She feels she’s much older.’ It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.”
Instead, Prine sings in his signature raspy drawl:
Make me an angel that flies from MontgomeryMake me a poster of an old rodeoJust give me one thing that I can hold on toTo believe in this living is just a hard way to go
“Does any single lyrical line better get at existential despair than ‘To believe in this living is just a hard way to go?’ ” wrote Tim Bousquet in the Halifax Examiner after the songwriter’s family announced last month that he was critically ill.
“I think John Prine has something to teach us in these difficult times,” Bousquet added. “His talent, perhaps genius, is that he can view the world from his characters’ perspectives, get into those characters’ inner monologues, and give them the respect — even love — they deserve.”
“Angel From Montgomery” is now widely regarded as one of Prine’s best-known works, gaining massive recognition after Raitt recorded a version of the song for her 1974 album “Streetlights.” It’s also ranked as one of the great country songs of all time.
His detailed lyrics (“There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear 'em there buzzing”) and frank portrayal of a dreary married life (“How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/And come home in the evening and have nothing to say”) painted what Rolling Stone called an “indelible portrait of ‘a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is.”
“John Prine songs are like Raymond Carver stories, with characters who show their souls in a single phrase and scenes that flash one after another like a family slide show, sepia-tinged with longing and regret,” wrote Radhika Jones for TIME magazine in 2011.
The musician once told a young Roger Ebert for one of his first reviews that he tries “to look through someone else’s eyes” in his songs.
“I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message,” Prine said.
On Tuesday, as fans mourned Prine’s death, many included the lyrics from “Angel From Montgomery” in their tributes — but with a slight edit.
“Make him an angel,” they wrote.