From his time as a promising writer in Chicago's late-'60s folk scene to his current role as a creative role model to Miranda Lambert and other modern country musicians, John Prine has crafted memorable songs from both real-life emotions and surrealistic dreams.
From political commentary to tales of regular people's struggles, Prine proves time and time again to be one of the greatest living wordsmiths. He can really say something while being clever enough to earn such beautifully absurd song titles as "Christmas in Prison," "Jesus, The Missing Years," "It's a Big Old Goofy World," "Linda Goes to Mars," "Often is a Word I Seldom Use" and the best roots music song about the Soviet Union, "Space Monkey."
Despite hailing from the folk world, Prine's way with words and takes on the human condition always endears him to student's of roots music and Nashville's jet set. That's why Prine has hit the road in recent years with artists ranging from like-minded folk songwriter John Moreland to "Burn One with John Prine" singer Kacey Musgraves without seeming out of place.
The following 10 John Prine songs pretty much sum up his ongoing career, although there are way more great songs in a repertoire that's remained consistently strong for going on 50 years. It's impossible to not skip-worthy picks when approaching an artist known more for solid albums than hit singles. Notice there's nothing from the German Afternoons, Storm Windows, Common Sense or Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings albums, just to name four. Still, these picks are a good entry point.
10. "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone"
Some of Prine's best songs put listeners in the main character's shoes. In this strange instance from his Bruised Orange album, the character is a young, culture-shocked actor from India.
9. "Grandpa Was a Carpenter"
Only Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting For a Train" did a better job at painting a vivid picture of a hardened, quirky and lovable old grandfather that's relatable to every young boy with an elderly role model.
8. "Spanish Pipedream"
Prine's more country-sounding material from his early years would've made amazing Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs, as demonstrated by this slice of down-home surrealism.
7. "Sweet Revenge"
This mix of country, blues and old-time gospel that might've made the Rolling Stones themselves green with envy remains the best title track from a Prine album.
6. "Bear Creek Blues"
It almost seems wrong to include a cover among a brilliant songwriter's best songs, but few have done a better job adding a shiny new coat of paint to a Carter Family original.
5. "The Late John Garfield Blues"
From Prine's nasal delivery to his memorable turns of phrase, it's probably way too easy to liken this and a few other songs to Bob Dylan during his Nashville period.
4. "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore"
This one has it all: snarkiness, social commentary, dark humor and oodles of gospel and country influence. Few could emote all of that at once in a song that's equally humorous and thought-provoking.
3. "Angel From Montgomery"
One of Prine's best-known songs beckoned his arrival as a neo-folk master songwriter before going on to help define the career rise of Bonnie Raitt.
2. "Hello in There"
In his mid-20s, Prine wrote an incredibly poignant song about silver-haired daddies growing older and lonelier. It drives home the idea that a simple hello can mean the world to a stranger.
1. "Sam Stone"
Originally titled "Great Society Conflict Veteran," Prine's tale of a drug-addled Vietnam veteran's late-life struggles and premature death remains one of the most biting pieces of social commentary from a politically contentious time in popular music.
This post was originally published on February 14, 2018.