John Prine, the US folk and country singer beloved of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and more, has died aged 73 due to complications from Covid-19.
Prine was hospitalised on 26 March, and was in intensive care for 13 days before dying on Tuesday, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee. Prine’s family confirmed his death to several US media outlets including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Variety.
“We join the world in mourning the passing of revered country and folk singer/songwriter John Prine,” the Recording Academy said in a written statement. “Widely lauded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, John’s impact will continue to inspire musicians for years to come. We send our deepest condolences to his loved ones.”
On Twitter, Bruce Springsteen wrote “we are crushed by the loss of John Prine. John and I were ‘New Dylans’ together in the early 70s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world. A true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.”
Prine was born and raised on the outskirts of Chicago, and, on either side of a spell in the US army working as a mechanic in Germany, had a day job as a mail carrier while playing guitar and writing songs as a hobby. At a Chicago open mic night, he was heard complaining about the lack of talent on stage and was challenged to do better by one of the performers; his rapturously received three-song set earned him a $1,000-a-weekend residency and allowed him to quit the postal service.
His career was given a boost by Kristofferson, who saw him play in Chicago. When Prine was visiting New York, Kristofferson invited him to play a gig for a room of record-label staff – Prine was signed to Atlantic Records the next morning. “Luck has a good deal to do with it, luck and timing,” he said of his swift success. “But when the luck and timing comes along, you’ve got to have the goods.”
He released his debut album in 1971, and put out 19 studio albums in all. While wider mainstream success eluded him for years, he earned a sizeable following, including some of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters. Bob Dylan said in 2009: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.” Bonnie Raitt has celebrated his songwriting as “deceptively insightful. It’s at once playing on words and imagery, but expressing something deeper in such a succinct way, in such an exceptional way.”
Johnny Cash once described him as one of his personal “big four” songwriters alongside Guy Clark, Steve Goodman and Rodney Crowell, while ex-Pink Floyd member Roger Waters called him “extraordinarily eloquent”.
Prine won two Grammy awards from 11 nominations, and was also given a lifetime achievement award at the 2020 ceremony. In 2016 he recorded a duets album For Better, or Worse with singers including Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, and became his biggest chart hit then to date, reaching No 30. He outdid its success in 2018 with The Tree of Forgiveness, which reached No 5.
Prine twice suffered from cancer. In 1996, he had part of his neck removed due to squamous cell carcinoma, and required speech therapy to be able to perform again. In 2013, he had lung cancer, and recovered following surgery.
He had a small role in the 2001 Billy Bob Thornton-directed movie Daddy and Them, and years earlier had met with Dustin Hoffman after a producer suggested they work together on screen despite Prine never having acted before. “Finally, [Hoffman] said: ‘Well, how did you get here? And I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe somebody boinked your secretary’. I never heard from him again,” Prine remembered in his 2015 biography.
In a tribute on Twitter, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith wrote: “As if we didn’t have enough devastating news. The great John Prine has died and I am heartbroken. I always saw him as a sort of Mark Twain figure. A humorist but mainly a humanist. He could make you laugh one moment and rip your heart open in the next. He always very nice to me.”
Author Stephen King, actor Clancy Brown, comedian Andy Richter and astronaut Chris Hadfield also paid homage on Twitter.