Born on 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., Ste. 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. 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 strip mining 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 14 from his grandfather and his older brother, and soon was composing his own melodies and lyrics, many of 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 his postal job, he began performing his songs, many conceived during his delivery rounds, 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. Both helped the young singer obtain bookings in folk clubs in New York City and Los Angeles, and led him toward his first recording contract with Atlantic Records.
Debut Album Released
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, he 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 folk clubs 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 is 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."
Received Critical Acclaim
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 that preserved 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 included 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, and also serves as its 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, according to Wilson Library Bulletin. The article added that 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 include Prine's trademark observations on human nature. Many grapple with the universal feelings of passion, frustration, disappointment and regret. On the more capricious side, the title track traces the so-called "missing years" in the life of Jesus, 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."
Remade and Reissued
Prine marked time with a collection of songs loosely connected to the Christmas season in 2003, including remakes of such early Prine classics as "Christmas in Prison," and newly recorded versions of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and a duet with Margo Timmins, "If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man." He reunited with Epstein for his next release, Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, which included a duet with the gravel-voiced Marianne Faithfull on the heartfelt and touching "This Love Is Real." The album was given short shrift by critics, who nonetheless praised the album's tracks reissued on the subsequent live album, John Prine: Live on Tour, such as "Lake Marie" and "Humidity Built the Snowman." The live album also featured a full-band live workout on Prine's subtle indictment of chronic marijuana use, "Illegal Smile," from his debut album.
In 1999 Prine issued In Spite of Ourselves, an homage to the music and the female singers Prine admired. Notable for its inclusion of such world-class musicians as mandolin player Sam Bush, pedal steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, and country music journeyman Marty Stuart, the album featured duets with Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Lucinda Williams, and others, on such songs as Don Everly's "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Gone Bad)" and Freddie Hart's "Loose Talk." The album's title track is the lone Prine composition of the collection, and was written for a Billy Bob Thornton dramatic film in which Prine appeared, titled Daddy & Them. In 2000 Prine re-recorded many of his classic songs for the album Souvenirs, including "Angel from Montgomery," "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," and "Please Don't Bury Me." While the effort made sense from an economic standpoint (Prine had lost rights to the original master recordings of his own compositions), from an artistic standpoint the remakes added little to the luster of the original recordings.
In 2005 Prine released his first album of entirely original material in the nine years since Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. During those years, he won a battle with cancer and wrote the songs included on Fair & Square. According to Uncut critic Luke Torn, Prine's writing hadn't lost its edge during the interim: "Fair & Square delivers Prine's trademark croak and simple folk arrangements occasionally spiced by steel guitar or accordion, but it's the quality of the writing---from the complicated ruminations of 'Taking a Walk' to the lovelorn 'The Moon Is Down'---that shines on into his fourth decade."
by Michael E. Mueller and Bruce Walker
John Prine's Career
Served in Army during mid-1960s; U.S. Postal Service, Chicago, mail carrier, c. late 1960s; performing artist, 1969--; recording artist, 1971--; president of Oh Boy Records, Los Angeles.
- Selected discography
- 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.
- John Prine Christmas Oh Boy, 1994.
- Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings Oh Boy, 1995.
- John Prine: Live on Tour Oh Boy, 1997.
- In Spite of Ourselves Oh Boy, 1999.
- Souvenirs Oh Boy, 2000.
- Fair & Square Oh Boy, 2005.
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.
- Uncut, May 2005.
- Village Voice, December 20, 1973; April 21, 1975.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1989.