The music world has not been spared during these strange times. Chief among the tragic losses to coronavirus has been John Prine, dead this week at 73.
Prine was not a star. He had no major hits. You couldn’t readily point the unfamiliar to a Prine song they might recognise. Yet, those who spent enough time in the company of records such as his brilliant self-titled 1972 debut, 1978’s equally fine Bruised Orange (1978), Fair & Square (2005) or Tree of Forgiveness, his 2018 self-reflective and final album, became devotees. You were drawn in by Prine’s beautiful story-based songs and warmed by the truth he delivered in them.
From early tracks such as ‘Sam Stone’ or ‘Angel of Montgomery’, Prine had the knack of a great novelist for creating characters in his songs. Although often inhibiting lives he had little direct experience of, he was observant and empathic enough to be able to cut to the core of the ordinary soul.
Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen were among his adoring contemporaries. Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch, Conor Oberst and Sturgill Simpson are among a newer wave of writers in awe. Isbell wrote a moving tribute in the New York Times this week.
Listening this morning again to tracks such as ‘Hello in There’, ‘Sam Stone’ or ‘Donald and Lydia’, you can hear Prine’s influence, lyrically on Springsteen. You might go as far as to say that Springsteen, when writing the solemn songs that made up Nebraska, songs of winners and losers caught on the wrong side of that line, had Prine in mind as a guiding inspiration.
Two battles with cancer – lung and throat – slowed Prine’s recorded output over the past 20 years. Among a couple of compilations, he released just two records. Yet his stature among fans and musicians never wavered. It only grew. This was reflected in the success of his final album. Tree of Forgiveness debuted at number 5 in the US charts, his biggest chart success.
Prine was well connected to Ireland, so much so that President Michael D Higgins has paid tribute to him on his passing.
The songwriter met his wife, Fiona Whelan, a native of Ardara in Donegal, at a party in Dublin. Whelan had been working at Windmill Lane Studios at the time. Their marriage in the late 1990s ensured that Irish fans were rarely short of Prine concerts.
Prine, who owned a cottage in Kinvara, Co Galway, was even known to show up at Greene’s pub in the south Galway town to play for free at the weekly trad session. He reportedly spent last Christmas as his Galway cottage and last performed here publicly in August 2018 at the National Concert Hall. He was due back again this August at the Olympia Theatre and the world will be ever sadder that the inimitable songwriter won’t again be among us. So long, John.