John Prine's place in the pantheon of great American songwriters was earned not
by penning hits for others but by imbuing the characters that populate his
songs with extraordinary resonance, humor and life.
"A truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people"
is how Poet Laureate (2004-2006) Ted Kooser described Prine in 2005. "He's
taken ordinary people and made monuments of them, treating them with great
respect and love."
Prine grew up in the Chicago-area neighborhood of Maywood, Illinois, though he
spent influential summers in his parents' hometown of Paradise in western
Kentucky. In the late 1960s, Prine began writing songs while out on his mail
route for the U.S. Postal Service. By 1970, he had crafted a bag full of
unusually affecting songs, including one about Paradise, Kentucky's demise at
the hands of a coal company. In 1971, Prine's songwriting friend, Steve
Goodman, was opening shows for Kris Kristofferson, and he brought Kristofferson
to hear Prine after a show. Kristofferson helped Prine secure an Atlantic
Records deal and wrote liner notes for his debut. "Twenty-four years old and
writes like he's two hundred and twenty," raved Kristofferson in praising an
album now widely accepted as a collection of roots-music standards. Others
quickly took notice of Prine's debut, with major artists such as the Everly
Brothers, Bette Midler, Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt recording their own versions
of the album's songs. Raitt's devastating "Angel From Montgomery" has been an
every-night concert feature for her since 1974.
Prine continued writing songs that, while drawing acclaim from critics and a
growing audience alike, fell outside of the sonic and lyrical parameters of
mainstream radio. He didn't score a country radio hit until Don Williams took
"Love is on a Roll" to the top of the charts in 1983. Prine, who had moved to
Nashville in 1980, also co-wrote George Strait's 1986 smash, "I Just Want to
Dance with You." Mostly, he remained focused on writing songs for himself and
on maintaining his independent record label, Oh Boy Records.
Prine won a Grammy for his 1991 album, The Missing Years, and another
for a 2005 album, Fair & Square. In 2005, he was named Artist of the Year at the
Americana Music Honors & Awards, and his importance has been cited by such
songwriting exemplars as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and Tom T. Hall.