Born October 10, 1946, in Maywood, IL; divorced twice. Addresses: Office-- Oh Boy Records, P.O. Box 36099, Los Angeles, CA 90036. Management-- Al Bunetta Management, 4121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles, CA 90010.
The folk songs of singer-songwriter John Prine "have the natural grace and universality one hears only from a born story teller," asserted Don Heckman in the New York Times. Prine, a former mail carrier from Chicago, burst onto the national folk scene in the early 1970s performing original melodies and lyrics that poetically sketched the lives of grass-roots, working-class Americans. His 1971 debut album John Prine was widely praised by critics, and he has since recorded several albums that have secured his reputation as a distinctly gifted storytelling songwriter. In addition, his compositions have been recorded by numerous other artists, including Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Bette Midler. According to Ed McCormack in Rolling Stone, Prine's songs are "wholly and unmistakably in the American grain, jukebox songs, barroom songs, blue neon light songs, liquor store songs, hobo songs ... songs like early-American primitive paintings, bittersweet and filled with humor and gothic irony."
Prine was raised in a working-class family with strong country roots. He grew up in Maywood, Illinois, a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, where his father worked in the steel mills. Prine's family had moved to Chicago from Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky, deep in the heart of stripmining coal country, where his grandfather played guitar with such country artists as Ike Everly and Merle Travis. Prine learned the guitar at the age of fourteen from his grandfather and his older brother and soon was composing his own melodies and lyrics, many which displayed his country heritage. While growing up, Prine spent his summers in Kentucky, and his classic song "Paradise" evokes his family's hometown. He told Time: "Until I was 15 I didn't know that the word paradise meant anything other than the town in Kentucky where all my relatives came from."
Prine did not originally set out to make a career of performing and songwriting. After graduating from high school and serving in the army, he worked as a mail carrier in Chicago. As a break from the drudgeries of his postal job, he began performing his songs--many conceived during his delivery route--in the coffee houses of Chicago's Old Town district. Prine was heard by singer-songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka, who were immediately impressed and felt Prine deserved national exposure. Both helped the young singer obtain bookings in folkclubs in New York City and Los Angeles and led him towards his first recording contract with Atlantic Records.
When his debut album, John Prine, was released in 1971, Prine was hailed by critics as a major new folk talent. The American idiom of his lyrics and his rough-edged vocal stylings brought comparisons to 1960s folk-giant Bob Dylan, yet critics singled out the impact of Prine's lyrical portraits of ordinary people. A contributor to Time wrote: "His leisurely, deceptively genial songs deal with the disillusioned fringe of Middle America, hauntingly evoking the world of fluorescent-lit truck stops, overladen knickknack shelves, gravel-dusty Army posts and lost loves. In a plangent baritone ... he squeezes poetry out of the anguished longing of empty lives."
Prine went on to release four other albums with Atlantic and, although never breaking through with a large chart-topping record, maintained a dedicated cult following. According to Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon in The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, Prine's Atlantic recordings "represent some of the high points of American folk music in the 1970s." Included in this group are some of Prine's better-known songs such as "Hello in There," "Paradise," "Sam Stone," "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You," and "Grandpa Was a Carpenter." These first recordings, according to John Rockwell in the New York Times, portrayed "a songwriter of real wit and originality." During the early 1970s, Prine toured heavily as a performer, playing at music festivals, concerts, and folkclubs across the United States. Reviewing Prine in a New York City performance in 1973, a Village Voice reviewer described him as "a completely relaxed, friendly, unshow-biz performer.... Simple, even pure, in the kind of thing he does."
In 1978, Prine switched over to Asylum Records, and Bruised Orange --his first record with the label--received wide acclaim. Cited by Time as one of the ten best albums of 1978, Bruised Orange contained the songs "If You Don't Want My Love," "Fish and Whistle," and "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone." The latter, according to Rockwell, is "ostensibly about a circus performer toiling on a tour to support a film, but clearly a self-image full of amused mockery and controlled grotesquerie." The entire album, Rockwell continued, amply displays Prine's gift "to marry the unpretentious basics of folk musical styles and poetic imagery with an almost bizarrely exaggerated imagination."
The following year, Prine's Pink Cadillac was released and, according to Robert Palmer in the New York Times, represented "Prine's masterpiece to date." Displaying a stronger rock and roll sound than Prine's previous albums, Pink Cadillac was co-produced by Prine and veteran Memphis record-maker Jerry Phillips in a way to preserve the sense of live musicians recording together. The album featured five new Prine songs, including "Saigon" and "Down by the Side of the Road," and also the contributions of rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley. Palmer claimed Pink Cadillac "courts a kind of greatness that's extremely rare in contemporary popular music."
Since 1980, Prine has recorded with Los Angeles-based Oh Boy Records, of which he is also president. Prine has released four albums with Oh Boy, including 1986's well-received German Afternoons, and in 1988 was part of a successful tour which paired him with folk-country singer Nanci Griffith. His 1989 double-album, John Prine Live, gives "a virtual career retrospective" of his work from the 1970s through 1980s, a contributor to Wilson Library Bulletin wrote. The albums are a "vivid representation of the ample skills" Prine brings to his live performances, and showcase his "extraordinary storytelling songs."
After a four-year hiatus from recording, Prine returned to the studio, this time with Howie Epstein of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers as producer. The resulting album, The Missing Years, was released in 1992 on the Oh Boy label and garnered sensational reviews. Featuring background vocals by such noted singers as Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty, the songs on The Missing Years bear Prine's trademark observations on human nature. Many of the tunes grapple with the universal feelings of passion, frustration, disappointment and regret. On the more capricious side, though, the title track traces the so-called "missing years" in the life of Jesus Christ, speculating from a 1960s point of view on how he might have spent his adolescence.
Commenting on Prine's overall contribution to the folk genre, Rolling Stone contributor David Wild declared: "He was, and is, a songwriter's songwriter, widely admired for his ability to intermingle gracefully the humorous and the heartbreaking." "If this record hadn't done well, I probably would have quit," Prine told Gil Asakawa in Pulse! "Now, I can't stop."
by Michael E. Mueller
John Prine's Career
U.S. Postal Service, Chicago, mail carrier, c. late 1960s; performing artist, 1969--; recording artist, 1971--; president of Oh Boy Records, Los Angeles. Military service: Served in U.S. Army during mid-1960s; stationed in West Germany.
- Selective Works
- John Prine Atlantic, 1971.
- Diamonds in the Rough Atlantic, 1972.
- Sweet Revenge Atlantic, 1973.
- Common Sense Atlantic, 1975.
- Prime Prine: The Best of John Prine Atlantic, 1976.
- Bruised Orange Asylum, 1978.
- Pink Cadillac Asylum, 1979.
- Storm Windows Asylum, 1980.
- Aimless Love Oh Boy, 1984.
- German Afternoons Oh Boy, 1986.
- John Prine Live Oh Boy, 1988.
- (Collaborator) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two Universal, 1989.
- The Missing Years Oh Boy, 1991.
February 8, 2006: Prine won the Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album for Fair & Square. Source: Grammy.com, http://grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Annual_Show/48_nominees.aspx, February 9, 2006.
- Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Crowell, 1976.
- Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, 2nd edition, St. Martin's, 1983.
- Audio, August 1989.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 22, 1991.
- New York Times, November 5, 1971; June 18, 1972; February 27, 1973; April 20, 1975; December 17, 1975; May 28, 1978; July 13, 1978; September 23, 1979.
- Pulse!, February 1992.
- Rolling Stone, October 12, 1972; January 23, 1992; February 20, 1992.
- Stereo Review, April 1991.
- Time, July 24, 1972.
- Village Voice, December 20, 1973; April 21, 1975.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1989.