| A JOHN PRINE BIOGRAPHY
JOHN PRINE BIOGRAPHY
ŠTaylor Bowers 2005
Throughout the years John Prine has been known as many things: everything from the "new Dylan" to the champion of the common man.
Yet one title has seemed to slip through his fingers and elude him: famous. Being shunned by critics hasn't slowed Prine down, however; he has released eighteen albums to thousands of loyal fans who enjoy Prine's subtle, off-the-wall style of writing.
Prine's dedication wasn't learned; rather it was instilled in him through his traditional Americana values and upbringing. Hailing from a rural farming town and growing up by nominal means gave Prine the ability or, to some, the disability to learn the facts of life the hard way. These trials and tribulations, mixed with a little bit of imagination, would come to influence many of the songs that Prine would write later in life. His imagination was also a major part in the style of music that he plays, everything from old country to guitar smashing rock 'n roll. This wide variety of style enables Prine to attract fans from all walks of life. As well, Prine's upbringing also gave him the ability to identify with the life of the simple man.
With all of these attributes stacked in Prine's favor, it is no surprise that I have been hooked on him since my dad first uttered the words, "Come listen to this guy sing; he can write one heck of a song."
John Prine's upbringing both inspired his music career and instilled in him a great respect and affinity for the common man. Prine's birth in the rural Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois on October 10, 1946, was just the start of what can truly be called an inspiring childhood. One of Prine's major inspirations came from his many trips to Paradise, Kentucky, where he was able to visit with family members and let his imagination roam.
These excursions, along with the many lessons learned from his family, prompted Prine to feel the need to express himself. With this feeling inside, Prine was then inspired to pick up a guitar and start playing music, which I feel is one of the greatest forms of self expression. He knew from the moment that he picked up his first guitar that he was a natural musician: "My brother Dave taught me a chord and the first time I held it down I didn't muffle it" ("History" 1). Coming from a fellow musician, I know that this exemplifies Prine's natural ability, which is something that few people have. It didn't take long after that for Prine to start adding his own personal anecdotes into his God-given musical ability.
At the age of fourteen Prine wrote and *recorded his first two songs: "Sour Grapes" and "The Frying Pan" (Rees 688). The fact that Prine started his writing career so young comes as a surprise to most of his fans; on the other hand, it is no surprise that he found writing to be yet another one of his natural abilities. Prine's childhood served as both an inspiration and a springboard into his long-lasting music career. The ability to use his many childhood experiences and talents to find his niche in life once again proves Prine's upbringing to be one of his single greatest inspirations to date.
Though Prine's natural talents made him destined to make it in the music industry, it would not come as an easy task. He would serve in the U.S. Army and be stationed in Germany before being able to return home and focus on the music business.
His path was detoured once again when his financial situation caused him to get a job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Though his body was in another place, his mind never lost touch with his writings and his dream of being a singer. Having these jobs gave Prine the ability to expand his imagination and gave him the opportunity to see other parts of the world which would later strongly inspire many of his songs. Prine's first performance, at the "Fifth Peg" in Chicago, landed him an accidental weekly job playing at the club. When Prine was sure of the new employment, he quit the Post Office and went home to write the rest of the songs to fill up the time in which he would have to play ("History"1). His natural song writing ability was rudimentary in Prine's further success, for without it he would have never been discovered by record executives. Also, his determination and tenacity to play all of the local Chicago bars and coffee houses is what would finally get him jump-started into the music industry (Romanowski 793).
This is the point in Prine's life when he must decide if he wants to jump head first into a business with no guarantees or just give it all up. Much to the jubilation of his modern day fans, Prine's decision was to dive in and see that the water felt just fine. Prine was finally able to land a $25,000 record deal with Atlantic Records after getting recognition from one of his contemporaries, Kris Kristofferson (Rees 688). All of Prines' dues had finally been paid and now he was able to sing his songs and get paid for doing so. The hard work and long hours had finally resulted in a dream come true for this small town kid who had many years before picked up a guitar and decided to start writing songs.
Prine's great start in music prompted him to further strive to produce more albums, and maybe even mix up his style to achieve a larger fan base. Prine's second album, Diamonds in the Rough, did not receive much support from his local fan base and was overlooked as one of his premier albums. The album did have its own "Diamonds in the Rough" so to say. It yielded many of Prine's signature songs such as "The Great Compromise" and "Souvenirs" (Cooper 1). Prine's disappointment in his album inspired him and his record company to try new things and change his style of play. This change was apparent on Prine's next album, Common Sense, which introduced a new sound for Prine: hard rock. Prine fans were shocked; their own personal folk star was now coming out of left field with guitar smashing rock, and their disappointment was proven through low album sales (Romanowski 793).
Prine was now faced with a dilemma, so he decided to take a sabbatical from writing for a while to decide if he wanted to continue on with his dreams. Thankfully for Prine fans, he trudged on. With his next album release, Bruised Orange, he restored both his old school folk style and his loyal fan support (Cooper 2). Prine had finally returned to what his fans wanted, threw caution to the wind, and proved to them that he would give them what they wanted through any means necessary. Prine would later succeed with his distinct style by receiving a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Folk Album" for The Missing Years (Larkin 4339). The award skyrocketed the name of John Prine to the top of the charts and proved that he was capable of making it in the crazy world of music business. Despite the fact that many of Prine's albums haven't had great commercial success, his fans have stuck by his side through the thick and thin, and that is what makes Prine successful in his own book.
While looking at Prine's hit parade of records, it is plain to see that his distinct style of play incorporates all types of music. The idea to play many different types of music was Prine's plan to take all of his favorite influences and combine them into his own unique style. Prine's songs range from old-school folk all the way to pure country and rock 'n roll (Romanowski 793). The varying styles not only gave Prine his own genre, but it also gave him the opportunity to appeal to a larger fan base.
Prine's country music influence came from playing guitar with his grandfather, Dave Prine, who also happened to play with country music legend Merle Travis (Larkin 4339). These country and western influences would provide Prine with a starting point in his music career and would even open a few doors for him. His first record deal came as a result of Paul Anka's interest in Prine's old country songs (Romanowski 793). Prine's ability to effectively use his grandfather's influence had finally paid off for him in a huge way. Another great pay off, of his country style, was earning the respect of longtime country legend, Johnny Cash. Cash covered Prine's song, "Unwed Fathers" and greatly enjoyed Prine's work, which is a true testament to Prine's writing ability. ("History" 1).
Another one of Prine's greatest musical influences was the man whom critics thought Prine would be most like: Bob Dylan. The similarities between these two artists are subtle, yet nonexistent at the same time. When Prine came onto the music scene, he made it a point that he was not going to imitate anyone. When Prine was asked about Dylan he replied, "Well, I'd have to say Bob Dylan...were my biggest influences" ("Larry" 1). Much of Prine's acoustic folk style is thanks to his reverence for Dylan. Prine fans are grateful for such great musical influences throughout his life and career, for without them there would be no John Prine.
Prine's musical career has always been nominal in terms of commercial success, but his success with his fans is immeasurable. Prine's music has always been adored by his fans, despite the fact that he has only produced one album that has scratched the U.S. Top 100 (Larkin 4339). This displays Prine's determination to produce music the way he wants and not be persuaded by harsh music critics. Prine's poor record sales on major labels prompted him to make a life changing decision: start his own record label. In 1982 Prine finalized his decision by opening Oh Boy! Records and putting out his first release "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (Cooper 3). This finally gave Prine the ability to write and produce what he felt his fans would enjoy without the pressure from big shot record executives.
Prine could finally be himself and much to the delight of his fans that's what he did. Prine's fan base grew as he released albums on Oh Boy!, diversifying his audience and luring in new ears all of the time. Commenting on his fans Prine said, "It's a great feeling when you put something in a song and people say that's exactly how they feel" ("History" 1). Through his actions Prine proves time and time again that he is truly a man of his fans and not of the music business. Despite no evident future in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, Prine still produces music to this day not for monetary purposes, but for the satisfaction of pleasing whom he cares about the most: his fans.
If success could be measured by extremely devoted fans, or the diehard respect of his peers, John Prine is a superstar. Commercial recognition, however, has come unfairly to Prine. Though critics have wrung their thesauruses dry attempting to do justice to Prine's talents, there is no word in the human language to sum up Prine's distinctive song-writing style. His ability to pull your leg and tug at your heart with his quick wit and frank heart is something that appeals to people from all walks of life. Bursting onto the scene as the "new Dylan" Prine quickly brushed off the nickname with his own unique style of playing music that to this day hasn't been duplicated. Thus confirming that no artist from here until eternity will ever come close to being the "new Prine."
ŠTaylor Bowers 2005
*editors note: Prine recorded these songs first
on a personal recorder at age 14. Later they were recorded on his Oh Boy
label "Diamonds in the
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