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John Prine: An American Music Treasure

“John Prine can make you laugh like no one else can make you laugh.”

That’s what American icon Bill Murray told the Washington Post. It turns out Murray really wanted Prine at the Kennedy Center when he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, too. It didn’t work out, but knowing a comedic master reveres your writing is a nice consolation. Oh, and fellow Chicagoan and comic Stephen Colbert calls Prine an idol, too.

But the truth is, John Prine can make you feel just about anything like no one else can. He’s criminally under-appreciated in the mainstream consciousness. When we talk of the great modern American musical poets, everybody’s list starts with the obvious. Dylan, Nelson, Haggard, Springsteen.

John Prine commands the respect of them all. Dylan once called Prine’s stuff “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs… nobody but Prine could write like that.” He was so impressed with Prine’s 1971 debut album that he showed up unannounced to one of his New York shows and played harmonica as a side guy.

Elvis Presley once requested Prine bring a guitar to his hotel room and play for him. (One song in particular, “Please Don’t Bury Me,” captivated him). Kris Kristofferson, who gets a lot of credit for bringing Prine to the forefront, once jokingly said he “writes songs so good we’ll have to break his thumbs.”

Prine’s new project, For Better, Or Worse, is a collection of covers and duets in the spirit of his classic album In Spite of Ourselves. In celebration of his new record, we look back Prine’s profound impact on American music.

Humble Beginnings in Hank

Prine picked up the guitar thanks to a little friendly sibling rivalry. His older brother Doug played, and Prine wanted to prove he could, too. “Hank Williams was my dad’s hero,” says Prine. “And I wanted to impress my dad.” Really, for Prine, it all came down to making his dad proud. “If he’d have liked ballet, I’d have been Rudolf Nureyev.”

Sadly, Prine’s father passed away one month before his debut album was released in 1971. He entered into the music world knowing he wasn’t Hank Williams, but that he had his own gift for singing about the human condition. The whole thing really clicked when he saw Bob Dylan performing on Johnny Cash’s show. “Somewhere in there, in country music, between Dylan and Cash, there’s a place for me,” he thought.

As luck would have it, Kris Kristofferson also occupied that space and became Prine’s biggest champion. Prine’s friend opened for Kristofferson one night and later introduced the two. Prine played a few songs in a closed down bar for Kristofferson who then asked him to play literally everything he had for him. Kristofferson was such a fan, that during a profile for Life magazine, he said, “Enough about ‘Bobby McGee,’ there’s a guy in Chicago…”

And to think, not long before, he was a mailman who simply played an open mic when he had the chance. “I found out that other people twirled batons or set their mothers on fire to get into show business,” Prine says. “Here, it came to my doorstep.”

A Songwriter’s Songwriter

To be fair, Prine’s first record came at the American public like a sledgehammer. Maybe they just weren’t ready for songs like “Sam Stone.” The chorus of that song begins, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Prine takes no prisoners.

But that eponymous debut, which critics lauded as an instant classic, was the hard dose of truth America needed. He drew from his experiences in Army during Vietnam. He peeled back the facade of American living to reveal the dysfunctional reality of humanity. “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?” he asks in “Angel From Montgomery.”

That song still resonates among his peers. Bonnie Raitt covered it to great success not long after he released it. Maren Morris and Alicia Keys covered it in their recent CMT Crossroads taping. Kacey Musgraves once quipped her dream was to “burn one” with John Prine. (He politely declined the offer, but Musgraves’ had the honor of performing on stage with him years later).

He’s a songwriter’s songwriter. The list of artists who have recorded his songs is downright silly, from Johnny Cash to Miranda Lambert.

It’s a Funny Thing

And maybe you’re wondering, “What in the hell is so funny about addict army vets and depressed house wives?” It’s just the tip of the iceberg. Prine found his strongest voice in taking those desolate conditions and turning them on their head. “I find the human condition funny,” he once told the Telegraph.

And that’s exactly why Dylan says nobody can write a song like Prine. The ability to find humor in death, desolation, prison, abuse, addiction — and not just find humor, but find poignant meaning at the same time — few have done it. Mark Twain, maybe did it as well. But not as purty.

And though he never had a huge commercial hit, he had the respect of the world’s greatest artists, and that was enough to keep him floating. He couldn’t even figure out why it was happening to him, per se. But his real life eventually did. “Having children and having cancer, those things grounded me,” Prine says. “The children are a lot more enjoyable than the cancer.”

That’s cancer, twice. Once, in 1998, which required the removal of much of his neck tissue, and once again in 2013, when he had lung surgery (he’s since recovered). And it all came after he formed his own label, Oh Boy Records, because none of the labels knew what to do with him. It wasn’t until he started self-releasing music that he earned a Grammy. And through it all, he’s maintained an unmistakably chipper outlook on life.

For Better, Or Worse

The 70-year-old Prine continues to shine. He just released a duets album called For Better, Or Worse. And wouldn’t you know it, Prine is still reaching new heights. The album charted at No. 2 on the country charts (only his second album to ever chart on country) and No. 30 in the U.S. overall — the highest ever.

He says his wife more or less tricked him into doing it. His first duet record in 1999, called In Spite Of Ourselves was just such a great time, he admits. He again features some of the best female voices in country music, including Alison Krauss, Holly Williams, Lee Ann Womack and Miranda Lambert.

As for modern country music, Prine finds hope in the usual suspects. “Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are giving country music some hope right now,” he says. “I like songwriters in general, because they lay their feelings on the line, and that’s a gamble. People don’t just walk around everyday laying their feelings on the line.”

His voice graveled but his pen as sharp as ever, Prine continues to release music that will last forever in annuls of history. It’s a wild hypothetical, but imagine thousands of years in the future, some foreign species studying human culture. They want to know the nuance of the human heart. What makes it tick? What makes it laugh? Cry? What does it sound like?

The music of John Prine is a damn fine place to start.

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John Prine: An American Music Treasure