On April 7, 2020, John Prine, one of the most respected and acclaimed singer/songwriters of his generation, became one of the high-profile casualties of COVID-19, and while it’s now officially been a year since his passing - and not just any year, mind you, but the longest year ever - it still feels a little bit like he never left, since it’s not like we would’ve been able to go see him in concert anyway.
At the same time, though, Prine was one of those guys who you just know would’ve been doing live shows over Zoom and writing at least an album’s worth of songs about the pandemic...and let’s not kid ourselves: he absolutely would’ve rhymed it with “polemic” and given you a shit-eating grin while doing it.
To honor this first long year without John Prine, let’s look back at a couple of songs from each of the albums he released while he was a major-label artist for Atlantic and Asylum and remember just how good we had it back in the days when this music legend still walked among us.
“Angel from Montgomery” (1971): Written because Prine liked the idea of a song about a middle-aged woman who felt older than she was, the setting of the song was - per an interview with Prine for Bluebird Railroad - probably because Hank Williams had ties to the city. Bonnie Raitt’s cover of the song wasn’t the first (that honor belongs to John Denver), but it was certainly one of the most high-profile.
“Paradise” (1971): Prine penned this song for his father, providing a detailed look into the damage done by strip mining for coal, but it’ll probably forever be known now for the lyric where Prine asked to have his ashes strewn on the Green River. (They were.)
“Clocks and Spoons” (1972): This song from Diamonds in the Rough was so beloved by Prine’s son, Jack, that he covered it just over two weeks after John’s death and uploaded it to YouTube.
“Souvenirs” (1972): In an interview with American Songwriter, Prine revealed that he’d written this song on his way to a gig at a venue called the Fifth Peg:
They hired me from that open stage the very first time I sang for the crowd. They invited me back a week later, and I did it again for an open stage...So about the fifth time I was driving down there I thought, God, the same people are gonna be sitting there. I better have a new song. So I wrote ‘Souvenirs' in the car on the way down. And then I thought I’d come up with a melody. And I thought I had come up with a pretty sophisticated melody in my head, and I was surprised to find out it had the same three chords that all my other songs have. Really surprised. I thought I had written a jazz melody.
“Sweet Revenge” (1973): This was the title track to Prine’s third album, and if you listen to the lyrics, you can hear some of his frustrations about the way his previous album was received.
“Please Don’t Bury Me” (1973): It’s an ironic title now, sure, but it’s also an incredibly upbeat song for such a depressing-sounding title, which is classic Prine.
“Saddle in the Rain” (1975): This track from Common Sense is one of only two tracks from that LP that made its way onto Prine’s best-of collection, possibly because the album as a whole didn’t turn out the way he wanted, but it’s a great song anyway.
“Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard” (1975): This, not coincidentally, is the other song from Common Sense that made the cut for Prine’s best-of collection, but even if it hadn’t, we could never leave off a song with a title like that.
“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” (1978): In another quote from Bluebird Railroad, Prine revealed that he had a little help from Phil Spector on this tune, who “turned the melody inside out.”
“Fish and Whistle” (1978): This bouncy track came about because Prine wanted to write a song about things that were going on around him, so he wrote one about a car wash down the street.
“How Lucky” (1979): This great track stands out in particular on Prine’s Pink Cadillac album because it’s one of a few songs produced by the legendary Sam Phillips.
“Killing the Blues” (1979): Even though this isn’t a Prine-penned song - it was actually written by Roly Salley - that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as much of a classic as the songs he wrote himself.
“Storm Windows” (1980): Not a lot of Prine songs are built around a piano, but this one is, and it makes you wish he’d done more tunes like that.
“Living in the Future” (1980): This is one of those typically amusing Prine tunes, one which was inspired by people’s visions of futures that never seem to come anywhere close to matching the reality...or as he wrote in the liner notes to John Prine Live, “Here it is in the future and things aren't better; they're just here. The joke's on us!"