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John Prine dies at 73 after being hospitalized with COVID-19

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) — Country and folk singer-songwriter John Prine, known for songs like “Angel from Montgomery,” “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Sam Stone,” died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after complications with COVID-19. He was 73 years old.

Prine’s family announced the legendary musician’s initial diagnosis on March 29. He was hospitalized three days prior after a “sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms,” the family wrote. He was in critical condition and had to be intubated.

A day after the announcement that Prine was in the hospital, his wife Fiona Whelan Prine tweeted that her husband was stable, but clarified that being stable “is not the same as improving.” Fiona also contracted COVID-19, but has since recovered from the disease.

Prine was a prolific songwriter who inspired generations of musicians and listeners alike with his wry, but tender lyrics and observations. Kris Kristofferson compared hearing John Prine for the first time to “stumbling onto [Bob] Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.” Dylan himself told HuffPost in a rare interview that Prine wrote “beautiful songs.” Dylan’s favorite was “Lake Marie” from Prine’s 1995 album Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings. Even Johnny Cash wrote in his autobiography that he turned to Prine’s discography for inspiration.

Younger musicians similarly flocked to Prine. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, for example, said Prine is his favorite songwriter. Margo Price, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves have all performed with Prine, who they knew as a friend and mentor.

A two-time GRAMMY winner, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019. If you don’t know him by name, you’ll probably recognize his work. Many Prine songs achieved newfound popularity when covered by other stars, like when Carly Simon and John Denver both covered “Angel from Montgomery” from Prine’s debut album. However, it was Bonnie Raitt’s rendition of the song that helped it reach classic status. She called the song a masterpiece. Prine’s song “Hello In There” about a lonely eldery couple became a staple for Joan Baez, who recorded a performance of the song the day Prine’s family announced his critical diagnosis.

John Prine was born October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois. He learned to play the guitar as a teenager and took classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. As an adult, Prine worked as a mailman in the suburbs of the Windy City. In January 1966, he was drafted into the Army and stationed in West Germany during the Vietnam War, where he joked he served by “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” He continued working as a mailman when he returned to the United States.

Prine never planned to be a full time musician; he first got on stage as a dare. Latest Nashville News But he soon realized the possibility for a career in music after hearing Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash perform on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Prine told Rolling Stone that he thought of himself as “right in the middle” of the two artists’ styles.

It was not a music critic or record executive who first showed the world Prine’s unique talent; it was Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. In 1970, when Ebert was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, he walked out a movie and into a folk music club called the Fifth Peg. There, Ebert came across a 23-year-old “singing mailman.” From Ebert’s review, the first of Prine’s career:

In 1971, Prine released his self-titled debut album. John Prine included most of the songs Ebert saw him perform at the Fifth Peg. Prine was 24 years old at the time, but despite his relative youth he wrote several profound songs about weighty topics. In “Sam Stone,” Prine told the story of a veteran returning home from war and battling a heroin addiction:

“But the morphine eased the pain

And grass grew round his brain

And gave him all the confidence he lacked

With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.”

With the oft-covered “Paradise,” Prine addressed the environmental impact of strip mining in Paradise, Kentucky, where his parents were born:

“Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel

And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land

Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken

Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man”

Still, Prine is perhaps most known for his humorous tunes. Actor and comedian Bill Murray credits Prine’s 1986 song “Linda Goes to Mars” for helping him lift his spirits during a time when Murray was, in his own words, “a real bummer to be around.” Writer Hunter S. Thompson referred Murray to the work of Prine, telling him “We’re going to have to rely on John Prine for a sense of humor.” Murray listened to Prine’s catalog and thought, “Who the hell put [Prine] in charge of the sense of humor?” But when the former Saturday Night Live star reached “Linda Goes to Mars,” it all clicked for him, and Murray began to escape the funk he was in.

Prine was diagnosed with cancer twice in his life. In 1998, doctors found squamous cell cancer and had to remove a piece of his neck. The operation severed some nerves in his tongue. After a year of what The New York Times described as “intensive speech therapy,” Prine was able to perform. Press Release Distribution Service The effects of the surgery changed his voice, but he embraced his new gravelly vocals. In 2013, he underwent more surgery to remove cancer in his left lung.

Prine was no stranger to pondering his place in the afterlife. In fact, he wrote multiple songs about it. In “When I get to Heaven” from his 2018 album Tree of Forgiveness, Prine said his vision of paradise included a cocktail—vodka and ginger ale—with a “cigarette that’s nine miles long.” In “Please Don’t Bury Me” from 1973’s Sweet Revenge, he provided the listener with a guide for what to do with his body once he passed, including donating his stomach to Milwaukee “if they run out of beer.”

Prine moved to Nashville in 1980. His record deal with Asylum had just ended, so he decided to start his own label with longtime manager Al Bunetta and their friend Daniel Einstein. The three founded Oh Boy Records, an independent label that is still operating in Nashville. According to the Oh Boy Records website, it is the second oldest artist-owned independent label in the country and the oldest in Nashville.

Prine liked to joke that he was one to “look busy for a living,” but even at age 72, he toured Tree of Forgiveness and sold out Radio City Music Hall. The album was the highest-charting of his career.

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