John Prine (above right with Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt) was born today in Maywood, Illinois in 1946. He picked up the guitar as a teenager and took some music classes in Chicago before a stint in the Army. After returning duty he settled into the Chicago folk scene and was discovered by Kris Kristofferson which led to a recording contract Prine would go on to become one of the saddest, funniest, most sincere and insightful singer/songwriters in modern music.
Prine has an almost unparalleled ability as a storyteller and this was clear from his eponymous debut album in 1971. Songs like "Angel From Montgomery" and "Hello in There" are vivid tales of loneliness and old age. "Sam Stone" introduces us to a drug addicted Purple Heart veteran, "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" attacks arm-chair patriotism, and "Illegal Smile" became a hemp enthusiast anthem.
Perhaps the song Prine is most known for is the song that he isn't known for at all. Prine met Steve Goodman ("City of New Orleans", "Go, Cubs, Go") in Chicago during his time in the folk scene. In 1974 they penned one of the funniest spoofs of country music, and perhaps one the funniest songs ever, when they wrote "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" for David Allan Coe. Prine refused credit for the song, and Goodman is named during the song, so few people know that Prine was part of this masterpiece.
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery in the recording industry. Maybe the best measure of Prine and his influence is a look at a list of artists that have covered his work: Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, John Denver, Loretta Lynn, Bonnie Raitt, Everly Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, My Morning Jacket, Avett Brothers, Drive By Truckers, Susan Tedeschi, and many more.
In spite of himself, Prine is still active today, having twice survived cancer. He has released over twenty albums, influenced countless musicians, crafted unforgettable tales, won three Grammys, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.