If Jimmy Rodgers was the Singing Brakeman, then it’s not too much of a stretch to call John Prine the Singing Postman, since that was how he made rent when he was spending nights sitting at his kitchen table writing his first songs in the late 1960s. By the time he got to Chicago’s Fifth Peg to actually perform, he already had an ass pocket full of greatness.
Roger Ebert recognized his talent and gave Prine his first write-up in the Chicago Sun-Times, saying his songs were like little movies and better than anything he’d seen in a while. Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album featured some of the most indelible songs in the American songbook, timeless classics that established him as one of the most uniquely gifted voices in American music. Littered with gems like “Paradise,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone” (no one will ever write a line as wryly tragic as “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”) and the achingly sad “Hello in There,” the amazing debut inspired critics to canonize Prine as the “next Dylan,” which he famously dismissed by noting “we’re not done with the first one yet.”
In the four decades since his auspicious debut, Prine has confounded reviewers and delighted his legion of fans with his ability to simultaneously widen his songwriting focus to encompass the big picture while honing in on the smallest, most intimate detail, whether he’s being side-splittingly hilarious or heartbreakingly poignant. Whether in a Folk, Country, Bluegrass or Roots Rock context, Prine has combined social and political commentary with brilliantly simple storytelling to craft a catalog that can honestly boast that its lesser contributions are better than some songwriters’ best work.
Prine’s voice has acquired even more grit and gravity since a stiff-bristled brush with cancer a dozen years ago, although the shift in his register allowed him to revisit his older material in a new and engaging way. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roger Waters, Steve Earle and many more have all professed to be influenced by Prine’s songs across 16 studio albums, two anthologies and three live albums. But perhaps Kris Kristofferson, who helped bring Prine to the wider world, put it best at Prine’s 2003 induction into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame: “If God’s got a favorite songwriter, I think it’s John Prine.”