John Prine Biography

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©Brian David Frain  
Mr. Switalski  English IV - College Bound 26 April 1996


Singing and songwriting go hand-in-hand. The music industry is overwhelmed with fresh, young talent. These artists struggle, trying desperately to earn a name for themselves. Sometimes it can take years. When you earn the respect of your peers, and they recognize your work, you have made a difference. One artist has earned more than his share of respect. He is a peer, a mentor, and a hero. John Prine’s efforts as a singer and a songwriter have greatly influenced the music industry.

"Writing is about a piece of paper, and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there." This simple phrase is John Prine’s philosophy. John Prine was born in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago known as Maywood, Illinois, on the tenth of the month. Parents William and Verna Prine were blessed with their son on an Autumn afternoon in October, 1946. The son of a former coal mine worker, John’s dad moved his family out of Western Kentucky to get away from the dangers of the industry. William became a tool & die worker, and later, the president of a local steel worker’s union. (Fricke 11)

Throughout John’s childhood, music was frequently exposed to him. At the age of 12, he was taught to pick guitar by his older brother, Dave. Several trips were taken by the Prine family back to Kentucky while John was growing up. John entertained himself by making up rhymes and songs in the car on the way to Paradise, the family’s hometown. Many of these songs John made up as a child became hits for him later in life. While a teenager, John and his brothers would play instruments and sing for the family, never thinking twice about becoming famous; never even dreaming about what was in store just a few years down the line. (Fricke 11)

High school graduation came in 1964, after which John worked as a mailman in Chicago for a couple of years. During those years, he entertained himself en route by making up more songs. "There isn’t a whole lot to do out there, so you have to entertain yourself somehow," he said. The draft surprised John in ’66, and he spent a few years at a base in Germany, where he worked as a mechanic in a motor pool, entertaining the fellows in the barracks with his singing and guitar playing. After John was discharged, he went back to being a postal worker. A few more years passed, and Prine found himself in a state of discontent with the postal service. (Fricke 12)

After a few beers one night in early 1970, Prine was dared to take the stage in a Chicago folk club called The Fifth Peg. The audience accepted him with open arms. His uncanny songs and style of playing them captivated them. This warmth along with the club owner’s offer of a job convinced Prine to quit delivering mail to pursue the music business. John worked diligently, and after a few months, he heard that the guy who had written the best railroad song ever was playing at The Earl of Old Town Club. John insisted on meeting that guy. The guy turned out to be Steve Goodman. (Fricke 15)

I had heard that the guy who wrote ‘City of New Orleans’ was playing at the Earl and I wanted to go listen to him. I had this mental picture of what the singer would look like. I was expecting to see this real tall, skinny guy with a goatee and a real deep voice. So I walk in and this little guy with long hair and a full beard walks over and I ask him if he was going to take me back to meet Steve Goodman, and he tells me he was Steve Goodman. (file:///A|/PRINEBIO.HTM)

The two men became good friends and partners, and in the summer of 1971, Steve played one of John’s songs at an opening for Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson loved the song, and insisted on meeting Prine. Steve offered Kris a seat at a Prine show at The Earl. Kristofferson accepted and came to the show with his pal, Paul Anka. Naturally, the pair was swept off of their feet. Goodman and Prine almost immediately were sent to New York to cut demos, and at a later Kristofferson show, Kris had John play a few songs for the audience. Goodman and Prine would go on to play and write many songs together. (Fricke 15)

With a borrowed guitar, John made his way through a few songs, one of them being "Sam Stone". Kris got up on stage with John after he had finished singing and said, "No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy. John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs." Many people considered Kristofferson’s endorsement to be one of the greatest of all time. And it just so happened that Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records was in the audience. The following day, Prine was offered a record deal. (Fricke 7)

Later that year, John Prine’s John Prine was released. The album was given terrific reviews by both fans and music critics. Prine was labeled as the "New Dylan". His songs brought him a huge audience who ate his music up. The follow-up to John Prine was a special album called Diamonds In The Rough. It was special because John had called upon some of his friends and family to help make it. The guests contributed harmonizing vocals, and instrumental wizardries. The total cost of the album was a mere $2,700 including beer. A single off of the album called "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You", was written by Prine to pay homage to one of his heroes, Hank Williams. Two other songs on Diamonds In The Rough, "Sour Grapes" and "The Frying Pan" were written by Prine when he was only fourteen. (Fricke 14 & 15)

Sometimes, an artist’s third album is the audience’s hardest to accept. This was the case for John. Sweet Revenge was a lot more harsh than the first two. Unappreciative fans were unjustly disapproving, not wanting to bend for Prine as he ventured into another recording dimension. With the exception of the big hit, "Dear Abby", Prine later found himself recording to match his first two albums. (Fricke 16-18)

Common Sense, released in 1975, did not fulfill those expectations. It precipitated the first major crisis of Prine’s career. Critics didn’t approve, and Prine justified the diversity of the new album by saying that he didn’t want to be wrapped up in a "style trap". Common Sense wasn’t like any of the first three albums. Prine just wanted to try some different things musically. He believed it to be necessary. With the disappointment of the unsuccessful fourth album, and a chilly response from critics, Prine’s honeymoon with Atlantic was over. Good-heartedly, Prine told the Atlantic label to drop him. Ironically, the last recording of Prine’s music released on Atlantic in 1976, was a compilation of hits known as Prime Prine, which didn’t go gold for seventeen years. A radio personality, Pat Dawson, wrote this about Prine with the release of the album. (Fricke 18-21)

    The hardest thing to believe about John Prine is that it’s only five years and four albums since he wandered almost surreptitiously into our collective consciousness. If you know Prine, it’s as if he’s always been there. As Kristofferson said in the notes for the first record - ‘Twenty-four years old and he writes like two hundred and twenty.’ And now the two hundred and twenty year old man is pushing thirty, like so many of the rest of us, and the music is still as fresh as the first time around. His voice certainly has a unique quality, and the arrangements are good, but sticks in your mind long after the record stops playing are the songs. The sad songs almost haunting - the funny ones like sardonic private joke between author and listener. And all of them making you think; think about just what Prine wanted you to in the first place. The peculiar thing about John Prine’s songs is that they’re always accessible and always personal. There was never any thought of calling this collection ‘John Prine’s Greatest Hits.’ Prine is a cult figure in the purest sense; and that’s really too bad. Because he writes songs about things everybody feels. In truth, John Prine is probably the most universally literate ex-mailman you will ever run into. Believe it or not, it is five years, and there have been four albums. But, I’m not going to write about the passing of time; my descriptive words would only pale next to his. Moreover, because sitting in the smoky back of an airplane in the middle of the North Atlantic night, I see John Prine’s characters all around me. And that’s why you should listen to these songs. Ultimately, they speak about you and me. Thanks, John - for giving us things to hold on to. (Dawson)

From 1975, three years passed without a new album release. In 1978, Prine managed to turn out a quality album on Elektra/Asylum called Bruised Orange. It was an album that contained funny, upbeat, and downright goofy songs, to use one of John’s favorite adjectives. Seemingly a success, Bruised Orange was dubbed a landmark in folk music. This image shot in reverse one year later, as a rebellious Prine unapologetically released Pink Cadillac (1979), a wild album that was filled more with rock music than folk. With lines such as, "I got a sideways hickey from a slant-eyed chicky / down in Chinatown" and "I got a sugar rush that would make a nigger blush / down in Chinatown". Pink Cadillac was no more than a party record, and was to be nothing more. At the turn of the decade, John came up with a slower, more polite album that was full of meaning. Storm Windows, surprisingly contained a portion of the material that was remixed from Pink Cadillac recording sessions. This slow dance with music was the temporary end of album recording by Prine for four years. (Fricke 21-22)

The early eighties found Prine in Nashville, writing songs with respected songwriters such as Roger Cook, Donnie Fritts, and Bobby Braddock. These songs served as material for the second album of the new decade, Aimless Love. Its late release, (1984), was due to a lack of finances for the production, and the early mechanics of setting up John’s own record label, Oh Boy. However, Oh Boy did manage to release a popular Christmas single in 1982, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". Another reason for Prine’s lackadaisically juvenile approach to producing Aimless Love was that Prine was just never really interested in studio recording. "I always thought my dislike for getting into the studio was a bad thing," he said. With the release of Aimless Love and the set up of the Oh Boy label, things seemed to be going better for Prine. They weren’t. Soon after Aimless Love hit stores, Steve Goodman died. Goodman had been suffering from leukemia for about fifteen years, but hid it so well, he could always maintain a good (if not sadistic) attitude about it. Prine said this about Steve shortly after his death. (Fricke 23)

    He’d had leukemia since 1968. It was something he always talked about, a dark-humor thing. We’d go to airports, and he’d look up at the word ‘terminal,’ shake his head, and go, ‘Why do they have to have that sign up there?’ It was like that for years. (Fricke 24)

In 1985, a benefit concert was held for Goodman, and along with many others, John and Bonnie Raitt participated in the show. Indeed, Steve’s death took its toll on everyone who had been touched by him, (and there were many), especially Prine. (Fricke 23). The Steve Goodman Anthology was released by Steve’s record label, Red Pajamas, in 1994. Various people who knew him, (Jimmy Buffett, Dennis Hopper, Arlo Guthrie, Marty Stuart, Jethro Burns, and Steve Martin, etc.), donated pieces of writing to the production. This was John’s.

    I think it was the summer of ’73. Steve and I were playing the Sanger Theater in Mobile, Alabama. It was our first time there. During the afternoon, after soundcheck, we were talking to this elderly stagehand. He informed Steve and me that the very first performer in that majestic theater was none other than Al Jolson who opened the Sanger in 1927. Steve Goodman’s eyebrows raised, his eyes enlarged with his eyeballs shifting from side to side. This usually indicated Steve had an idea. That evening I stood by the side of the stage watching Stevie open the show. He hit them with a couple of funny songs, dazzled them with a guitar piece and tried a ballad on them, all the time like he was measuring the entire crowd for a pair of pants. Towards the end of his show he had them all settled in and grinning...now for dessert!!! Steve dove into his final song and three guitar strings popped at the same time. He sat the guitar down, dropped to his knees, and sang Al Jolson’s hit "Mammy" into the guitar mike. The whole place erupted with applause. The walls were moving in and out. Steve stood up, took a deep bow, and left the stage. He walked over to me with this goofy grin on his face and said, ‘They’re gonna love you, Johnny.’ And they did. And we all love Steve Goodman. He was an incredibly talented, energetic, beautiful human being and I was one of the lucky ones to have him for a friend.......Miss you, pal. (Red Pajamas 14)

The death of Steve Goodman helped influence Prine’s decision to go back to the fun, breezy style of music fans wanted. German Afternoons, the second album released on Oh Boy, was similar to Aimless Love, and Prine’s greatly under-appreciated Bruised Orange. The single that made the album for fans was a silly spoof called "Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian". The album sought the help of longtime Prine pal Marty Stuart. Stuart assisted on a new version of "Paradise", which appeared on John Prine. "Paradise" was written for John’s dad about his hometown of Kentucky. Many years before, Prine was introduced to the King Of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. "Whoever introduced me said, ‘You know, the guy that wrote that song about Muhlenberg County.’ Bill said, ‘Oh, yeah. I thought that it was a song that I overlooked from the twenties.’ What a compliment." John kept to his simple style by recording the entire album in just over two weeks with a budget of $30,000. German Afternoons even earned a nomination for, (but didn’t win), a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy in 1987. (Fricke 10 & 25)

Later, a single off of the album, Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness, was covered by up-and-coming folk sensation Nanci Griffith. The song was given added charm by the harmony of John. Griffith’s album, entitled Other Voices, Other Rooms, contains recordings in which she pays homage to her heroes. (Nanci covers songs by folkies such as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie, and Jerry Jeff Walker). Although John received a somewhat warmer response from German Afternoons, disappointments still abounded. There was a point in John’s career where he considered giving up on music all together. With the end of his second marriage, and several dead-end recording sessions, Prine was ready to call it quits. Unsure of what else to do, John thought about possibly reentering the postal business or going back to school. With the confusion, the last anyone heard out of Prine for years was a double concert release in 1987, known as John Prine Live. (Fricke 25)

Years passed, and Prine sat contemplating life. One day, Prine’s longtime friend and manager Al Bunetta called. Bunetta had recently conversed with Howie Epstein, bass player for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Epstein had begun testing his skills at producing, so Bunetta and colleague Dan Einstein got together with Epstein to discuss the possible production of a Prine album. After minimal discussion, production began. Epstein seemed to have all the right answers on how Prine could make himself accessible to fans again. "He (Howie) was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help but want to get into the studio again," Prine said. (Fricke 25-26)

The new album, The Missing Years, used the talent of many of Prine’s friends, both vocally and instrumentally. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, and the ever-willing Bonnie Raitt were vocalists and writers who were on the roster.

Instrumentalists Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell (both from the Heartbreakers), and David Lindlay lent their talents as well. The Missing Years, (which incidentally is not named for the window of time between Prine recordings), was Prine’s most expensive and time consuming musical endeavor. The album took nearly nine and a half months and a $100,000 budget to create. (Wild 16)

The Missing Years was considered by many as John’s breakthrough album. Fans could relate and enjoy Prine music on a new level. People in the music industry were beginning to understand the Prine sensation which his cult followers had known about for years. Justly, The Missing Years was nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy in 1992. This time, it won. A certain sort of melancholy was felt by Prine about the Grammy. "I never really cared one way or the other if I won any awards or not. I was more happy for Bonnie (Raitt) when she won, but I was happy to receive mine." Some of Prine’s fans were so happy about the award, they acted as if they had won a Grammy; John considered it a team effort. (Fricke 26) Many great reviews were given to the album with its release. Here’s one of them.

    The Missing Years is the newest album by one of America’s great songwriters. It’s time Prine moved from cult favorite to the mainstream. Anyone who can conjure up the image of an adolescent Jesus going off to London to discover the Beatles and play with the Rolling Stones before returning home to accept his fate - "What have I gotten myself into?/I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood/They’re gonna kill mama/They don’t like me none." - gets my vote for songwriter of the year. Prine can make you laugh and break your heart at the same time, which is what the game is really all about. (Scelsa)

The reception of the Grammy made a few heads turn, especially in Hollywood, where Prine’s writing pal John Mellencamp was working. Mellencamp was directing and starring in a movie about a country singer’s problems with business and the bad habits that musicians can be exposed to. Falling From Grace, which did fairly well at the box office, (but better on the rental rack), landed Prine a bit part playing Mellencamp’s friend. By far, the most exposure Prine received from the picture was his contribution to the soundtrack. It featured "All The Best", a cut from The Missing Years. Others contributors to the production included Dwight Yoakam and Nanci Griffith. The soundtrack received four-stars from Rolling Stone, which rated it "Excellent". "By honoring the modest hopes and simple sorrows of people, and doing so with sturdy, complementary songs, Falling From Grace suggests the pleasures and promises to be found in an art whose impulses are truly democratic," it said. (Cullen 44 & 45)

A huge surge in popularity, the largest since the release of John Prine, came with the release of The Missing Years, and John kind of liked it. "I’ve sold 3,500 records and I’ve sold 350,000. It’s more fun to sell 350,000," he says. (Puckett 15) A while after the release of The Missing Years, Prine compiled his favorite Christmas songs, (which are few and far between), and released his first-ever Christmas album. With only eight songs, the album seems short, but is a guaranteed good time for holiday fun. Two songs from The Missing Years, "All The Best" and "Everything Is Cool" appear on the album. The single cover, "Silver Bells", is done in a charming, standard fashion. To top off the charm, Prine includes a lengthy speech about Christmas back home in Illinois. Sparsely distributed, Prine didn’t intend for the album to become a best-seller, he merely wanted his true fans to be able to relate with some of his personal experiences.

At the end of 1993, a compilation-releasing music corporation, Rhino, released a double album known as Great Days: The John Prine Anthology. With much personal consultation on the part of Prine himself, the albums feature songs from every Prine album known through 1993. With forty-one total songs, fans could get a wide display of this artist’s personal favorites, along with some of the biggest hits.

The whirlwind of growing popularity didn’t end with The Missing Years. It continues with John’s newest release, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. The new album contains more upbeat, semi-psychedelic material than ever before. The use of computer technology and mixing add to the new sound. Of course, John would never shy away from love ballads and slower, feel good tunes. Such is the case with Prine’s personal favorite, "Lake Marie". (Puckett 15)

Prine’s first experience with the song came while talking to a crew member in Wisconsin after a show. The subject of the conversation turned to some local lakes. He told Prine of Lake Marie, which was an interesting tale. The lake was tangled with mystery, and this persuaded Prine to want to visit it. The crew member and Prine decided to travel toward Lake Marie, which was only about twenty-five minutes away. Later, John and his brother did a little investigative reporting. They ended up in a library, reading old stories about the lake. It turned out to have a sister lake, named Lake Elizabeth. The two lakes were named after two abandoned babies that were found by a tribe of Native Americans. Prine began to write the song, basing the first verse after the discovery of the babies. But after that, John went into some fictional story-telling about a marriage on the rocks, and a shadowy double murder that took place in the proximity of Lake Marie. "When I was done, it was exactly what I wanted. I guess the point of the song is that if the Indians hadn’t named the lakes after a couple of white girls, they would still be peaceful waters." (Puckett 15)

Prine’s life is currently full of peaceful waters. It’s not as though Prine hasn’t had rough times, though. With the turbulence of the eighties, such as the low selling rate of his past albums, this well-deserved success comes as a welcome surprise. John has since married a girl from Ireland, and the couple recently became parents to a son whom they named Jack. They are expecting another child in October. Prine is still touring frequently, attracting the same following that has always been loyal, along with many new fans. "There’s a part of the show where it’s just me. I let the fans throw songs at me from the audience, and then I sing them off-key. There’s a segment of my audience that’s so used to seeing me solo, that they’re ready to stone any band I walk out on stage with." (Puckett 15)

Indeed, Prine still has what it takes to please fans. When it comes to song writing,

    John says, "I consider myself to be one of the most undisciplined people in the world. Totally irresponsible. I’d leave a song in a hot second for a hot dog or anything." (Fricke 10) If he was still a postal worker, he would just be old enough to retire. On the contrary, John has found what many could never find through music. During an interview, John was complaining about the weight of Grammys. He said that when he won his, it was the first year that they made them using real metal. Years before, he said, they looked as if they came out of bubble gum machines. The interviewer asked John if he was a cynical person, and he replied, "No! I’m quick to answer that. It’s something I like to call optimistic pessimism." (Manning 36) And although Prine still manages to deeply reach people through his music like no other musician can, he enforces his theory. "My current popularity will probably pass. I can’t really see what I do going on to arenas and my name becoming a household name. (file:///A|/PRINEBIO.HTM) I had trouble getting used to my new found success in the seventies. If my first albums would have sold well, I would have ended up in a f**king institution. (Wild 16) Heck, a long time ago I thought people who got into the entertainment business were either from wealthy families or from France." (Sanz 61)

A truly gifted songwriter, Prine deserves the recent acclamation that he’s been given. A good summary about what John Prine is about can be explained by the following statement that was offered by Dan Gerson, a fan. "I had become a little disillusioned over music lately, live or on recordings. I just hadn’t been getting the soul satisfying fix out of it I had come to expect. John Prine changed all that when I saw him live last night. He made me a believer in the power of music once again. God bless him." (file:///A|/PRINE.BIO.HTM)  

Works Cited
©Brian Frain 1997-1999