By Tony Attwood
In 2009, Bob Dylan told The Huffington Post that John Prine was one of his favourite writers, stating, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. ‘Sam Stone’ featuring the wonderfully evocative line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.’ All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy, and ‘Donald and Lydia’, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
John Prine comes to mind at this moment (16 April 2020) because he died just a few days ago on April 7 aged 73 having been an active and influential musician for 50 years.
He started out playing in open mic folk clubs, before in 1970 the Chicago Sun Times gave him his first fulsome praise in the mainstream media saying, “He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
But one of the things you notice in reading about Prine’s life is that he was not swept away by any of the attention he got. For example, he turned down his first record deal, feeling it wasn’t right for him. Not many people can do that; not with the first deal.
He was then noticed by Kris Kristofferson who having been invited to hear Prine by a friend, said, “By the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.”
Kristofferson then asked Prine and Steve Goodman (who later wrote “City of New Orleans”) to open for him at gigs in New York and Prine then signed for Atlantic Records. The album included “Sam Stone” as well as “Hello in There”…
The album also featured “Far From Me” which he often said was his favourite among the songs he wrote.
Bob Dylan then appeared unannounced at one of Prine’s first New York City shows, anonymously backing him on harmonica.
Prine, like Dylan, loved to do the unexpected, as with the second album “Diamonds in the Rough” that moved away from the feel of the first LP and was more bluegrass and Hank Williams than his earlier work.
He also had commercial success as when “Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” reached the charts as did the album which contained the song.
Other artists began to cover his music, as with David Allen Coe’s version of “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”, co-written by Prine and Goodman which has a bit of a laugh at standard country song lyrics.
But his ability to change musical styles and the themes within his music was prodigious, and this is, I think, one of the major factors that Dylan has seen in his work. Take this for example and compare with the songs above…
Unhappy with the way the music industry worked Prine then set up his own record company, partly with funds provided by his fans, and he continued writing original songs which were picked up by many other artists.
He won a Grammy Award for “The Missing Years” released in 1991, which tells the story of what Jesus got up to between his childhood and the start of his preaching. And like Dylan he was not averse to experimentation as with “Lake Marie”, which Dylan said was his favourite Prine song.
Also like Dylan, Prine would on occasion sometimes travel in unexpected directions, as in 1999 with his album “In Spite of Ourselves” which is made up of cover versions of classic country songs, in which Prine sings duets with Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless etc etc. The song was used at the end of the movie “Daddy and Them”. Prine also appeared in the movie.
The 2005 album Fair & Square was his first of original material for ten years, won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The next album of original material was not for another 13 years, (The Tree of Forgiveness), and it became his highest-charting album.
On 26 March 2020, John Prine was hospitalized with Covid 19 symptoms and he died on April 7, 2020, of complications caused by the virus.
Aside from Dylan citing Prine as a major influence, composers as diverse as Johnny Cash, and Roger Waters have particularly mentioned how much Prine’s music has influenced them.
Donald and Lydia
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You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to all the 602 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.
If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.
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