John Prine died today.
I met him in 1972, right after his first album came out. I’m almost embarrassed now at how glowingly I reviewed that record, except it was that good.
Prine came out of the Chicago folk scene, along with Steve Goodman ("City of New Orleans") and earlier, Big Bill Broonzy. Prine was different, not just from those two, but from everyone in music. His rough-hewn working-class sensibility carried so much understated emotion, you became his characters. As I found out, he’d earned every one of those songs.
In 1971, Prine’s eponymous album was released to generally good reviews and a nascent fan base. I was one of those fans. I played that record flat. Prine was one of the few musicians who had a country soul but was wholeheartedly against the war in Vietnam. He’d earned that, too, serving in the military.
The next year, Prine was touring and I got to interview him in San Francisco. I wrote a lot for Rolling Stone, but someone else got the assignment. Instead, I took it The San Francisco Bay Guardian whose irascible owner Bruce Brugmann had a low opinion of popular culture and rock in particular. But he indulged me.
I met Prine in a downtown venue—probably The Boarding House—as my photographer, Jon Sievert, snapped pictures. He was in the midst of his biggest tour so far, but Prine had none of the weary self-importance that afflicted so many musicians. It was a wide-ranging discussion about his background and education, as well as his musical influences.
At the time, Prine's history wasn't well known, but he filled me in. He was born in 1946 in Maywood, Illinois, a few towns south of O’Hare airport. But his musical roots were in Kentucky. His father was a tool-and-die maker and his mother was a homemaker. At fourteen, his brother taught him to play guitar. In the late Sixties, after two years in the army, he gravitated to the Chicago folk scene. He worked as a mailman, and he’d play at open mike nights. I already knew some of the story. Kris Kristofferson heard him and reportedly said: He’s so good “we’ll have to break his thumbs.” When he played New York, Bob Dylan had sidled up to the stage and played harmonica.
The Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert had written: “…out of sheer blind luck, I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage, one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing. This was John Prine. He sang his own songs. That night I heard ‘Sam Stone,’ one of the great songs of the century. And "Angel from Montgomery." And others. I wasn't the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I went to the office and wrote an article. And that, as fate decreed, was the first review Prine ever received.”
I remember asking Prine how, at 26, he had managed to get inside the heads of the characters in his songs, especially the old people. “Hello in There,” written in the voice of an old man whose entire life Prine conveyed in a few stanzas, had stunned me. He told me that he spent a lot of time in his youth just sitting around, listening. It kind of stuck, he said.
I wanted to write a profile of Prine, but in the end, I wound up doing a straight record review for the Guardian. I looked for it in my files when I heard he’d been taken ill with coronavirus.
It was titled, "Singers of the American Dream—Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and now—John Prine.” As the title suggests, I was uncharacteristically lavish with my praise for Prine’s album. I wrote then:
"Sometimes people come along who can see through the American dream without despairing, and to give that vision to others... Some American dreams are clearer, crueler and cheaper than others. And John Prine spills out a can of these. One after another. With a style that can make you feel genuine sorrow for the lost people of America."
Now that I’m old, and John Prine is lost to us, I still think "Hello in There," about a sad, quietly aging couple, is one of the most poignant things I’ve ever heard.
We had an apartment in the city
Me and Loretta liked living there
It'd been years since the kids had grown
A life of their own
And left us alone
John and Linda live in Omaha
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean war
And I still don't know what for,
Don't matter anymore
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,
Hello in there
If you hear it, it will surely stay with you.
A few years later, I left the music scene. Prine went on to forge a recognizable persona and a steady group of fans and record buyers. Bonnie Raitt had hits with "Angel from Montgomery," a song that Prine wrote, channeling a woman's life with an accuracy that is almost uncanny. Prine kept releasing albums. I would hear his songs on the radio from time to time but in the end, I sort of lost track of him.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent a year of treatments and surgery. During that time, I read up about other people who had the same disease. There was John Prine. He had endured far more radical treatment, surgery that removed his neck muscles and altered his throat and voice. I had escaped that.
Two years later, a recurrence sent me back to the hospital for the same surgery.
I began to think of his music again. About 10 years ago, I suddenly lost my ability to accurately hear melody. I couldn't recognize even familiar songs—even those I had known for years. I was blocked from revisiting the music of my youth and career.
A music critic who can’t hear. A writer and a singer whose throats have been cut. Still, for a long time we were battered, but still standing. Prine was set to tour this April.
When I lost that crucial part of my hearing, I remembered Prine's music in my head. I'd go down the list of his songs and hum them or just imagine them. They were still great. If you haven’t heard them, now is a good time to listen.
Alec Dubro is a lifelong writer who, in the Sixties and Seventies in San Francisco, covered the pop music scene. He lives today in Washington, DC.