John Prine, who established himself as one of America's deftest and most affecting singer-songwriters over the course of a nearly 50-year career, has died from complications of coronavirus. He was 73.
His publicist confirmed his death on Tuesday on behalf of his family. Prine had been in the hospital since March, and it was announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 17.
Prine was never a huge seller: The top-charting record of his early career, 1975's Common Sense, peaked at No. 66, and he did not reach the American top 10 until 2018.
But he was universally recognised by his peers as a gifted and distinctive songsmith who put his numbers across in a furry drawl that mated rich homespun humour, sharp narrative detail and deep warmth and poignancy.
Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
In spite of a multitude of health setbacks later in life, Prine always maintained the sense of humour that characterised much of his best work.
Prine was scheduled to play at Bluesfest at Byron Bay this Easter weekend.
Jim Kellar of the Newcastle Herald wrote a review of Prine's final show in Australia in March 2019. It is posted here.
John Prine is a master of capturing the human condition through words. At 72, he resembles a character in one of his own songs: a face somewhat disfigured by age and cancer surgery, a dry wit and uncanny storyteller, humble and proud at the same time.
For this, the farewell show to his Australian tour, he offered a tantalising collection of his hits and new material. He was backed by an tight quartet of musicians, including longtime collaborators Jason Wilber and Dave Jacques and multi-talented pedal steel player Fats Kaplin, who added polish to the clean, clear lyrical wizardry of his songs.
Prine is quirky with a capital Q, but god help you if you don't find him endearing.
His songs have always cut through the blur of life, to tell it like it is. Perhaps there is no better example than Sam Stone, his most acclaimed song, which poetically traces the years of a Vietnam vet after the war. "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes," he was singing, at a time when nobody wanted to talk about the war, much less the veterans.
But across 23 songs over nearly two hours, every tune offered an insight - a nudge, a wink or a kick in the pants - that you could not turn your back on. Even his throwaway lines, which he's probably delivered thousands of times, were funny.
Although prolific in a long career than began with his first album in 1971, Prine had not released any albums of new music in 13 years before he dropped Tree of Forgiveness in 2018. As he said on stage, he's been "on the run ever since".
His introduction came prior to the third song of the night, Knockin' On Your Screen Door, the first song he played from the new album. As he said: "We ain't going nowhere and neither are you, so sit back and enjoy."
The new songs blended perfectly with the old, albeit his classics are downright gems. The fourth song of the night, Bruised Orange, is evidence in point. Hey, it ain't such a long drop don't stammer don't stutter; from the diamonds in the sidewalk to the dirt in the gutter.
And on it went. As a matter of fact, right into Spanish Pipedream, with its unforgettable chorus, Blow up your t.v. throw away your paper, Go to the country, build you a home,
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches. Try an find jesus on your own.
Sure, there was some darkness a long the way, but mostly it was good humour, a resounding reenforcement of the joy of the human condition. The sad songs were not delivered with bitterness, the fun songs did not come with sarcasm. The cheers got louder as the night progressed, people began to sing along, and stand and applaud.
At the end of the main set, Prine and his band played the most poetic version of Lake Marie imaginable, and Prine put down his guitar and did the coolest old man dance you could imagine over it before shuffling off stage. If you never saw him again, it was memory to lock in.
Of course, he came back, for an encore of of When I Get to Heaven, the bolter off his new album, and Paradise, for which he bought out guests Tyler Childers (the opening act), his wife Fiona, and the Hoodoo Gurus.
It was a slow line to get out of the State, a chance to savour a memorable show just that little bit longer.
Setlist: Picture Show, Six O'Clock News, Knockin' On Your Screen Door, Bruised Orange, Spanish Pipedream, Caravan of Fools, Crazy Bone, Grandpa was a Carpenter, Hello In There, Far From Me, Summer's End, I Have Met My Love Today, Storm Windows, Angel From Montgomery, There She Goes, The Missing Years, Illegal Smile, In Spite of Ourselves, Please Don't Bury Me, Sam Stone, Lake Marie. Encore: When I Get to Heaven, Paradise.