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Our hearts go out to the family of legendary songwriter John Prine, who passed away after being in a critical condition recently with coronovirus. The legendary singer-songwriter John Prine died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He was 73 years of age. Part of John Prine’s brilliance was how easy he made it all seem. With some songwriters, you can hear the effort and strain put into every line, and it can become wearisome. But Prine seemed to come about it so humbly and naturally that you could believe, since you had access to the same language and the same chords on an acoustic guitar, that you could be as wise, as funny, as heart-rending as he could.

His road to that point wasn’t the typical one for music stardom. He was a soldier and a mailman before he emerged from Chicago with his debut album in 1971. That self-titled release cemented him as a fully-formed song-writing powerhouse.

Following his service in the army, John Prine seemed to spring forth as a fully formed multi-dimensional singer songwriter at the age of 24. Steve Goodman and Prine were running buddies and staples of Chicago’s hardscrabble folk scene during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was Goodman who led Prine to Kris Kristofferson. An established star, Kristofferson brought the pair to New York, and on their first night in town, Prine sang three songs at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Legendary Atlantic Records producer and A&R executive Jerry Wexler was in the audience. Twenty-four hours later, he signed Prine to the famed label.

In 1971, Prine released one of the most impressive debut albums ever, proving himself capable of writing folk balladry, country, and rock songs laced with pathos, sensitivity, and sardonic humor that reflected on the human condition. A critical smash but a commercial disappointment, this remarkable album set the tone for the rest of his career. The next two albums, 1971’s Diamonds In The Rough and Sweet Revenge, released in 1973, proved that the first album was no fluke. His songs continued to have depth, compassion, and an understanding that belied his young age. The first three or four records, I would just write ‘em while walking down the street–just throw ‘em over my shoulder,” Prine says. “The best way to get away from the world was to go write a song.”

This solo acoustic performance, recorded at the Music Inn in Lenox during the summer of 1973, captures Prine performing the material from his first three albums stripped down to their bare essence. In almost every case, these songs are even more compelling with just the man’s voice and guitar. This audience, the vast majority of whom had come to see Bonnie Raitt, is immediately drawn in and responds with great enthusiasm, bringing out a most inspired choice of material from Prine. Taken as a whole, this remarkable set is overwhelming in its diversity and contains a wealth of Prine’s most memorable compositions.

Fans of Prine’s self-titled debut will be delighted to find that album extremely well represented. Early in the set, he delivers the counterculture songs “Spanish Pipe Dream” and “Illegal Smile,” setting an irreverent tone that resonates with the audience. These more humorous numbers are almost immediately balanced out by “Donald and Lydia” an achingly poignant song about a young couple separated by army life and “Sam Stone,” an anguished tale of a drug addicted Vietnam vet. With its disturbing and penetrating lyrics, including a chorus of “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes; Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose,” There are few lyrics as sobering as this one from John Prine’s “Sam Stone” The track taken from his 1971 self-titled debut album, this acoustic song lays bare the horrors of war long after combat has ceased. The protagonist succumbs to a drug addiction after his severe wartime injuries, and his children’s innocent, simplistic view of their father’s darkest demon just hits you like a barreling train. Speaking of which, there’s another powerful, slightly more vivid allusion to locomotives when Prine describes the centre of his main character’s universe, the rush you get from taking heroin: “And the gold rolled through his veins / Like a thousand railroad trains.”

Prine’s insightful anti-war commentaries have a depth and substance that seemed to come from experience. As such, they have far more insight and resonance than most anti-war songs of the Vietnam era. That first album is also represented by the autobiographical “Paradise,” as well as the immeasurably sad songs, “Hello In There” and “Far From Me” Prine’s trademark wit and sense of humour also gets more time to shine on the rollicking anti-war song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” and “Pretty Good,” one of the most outrageously funny songs in Prine’s early cannon.

You won’t find very many 25-year-old male musicians writing from the perspective of an older woman, but John Prine had a gift for storytelling that knew no bounds. Singing with beautifully grizzled vocals over rousing organs, Prine pleads with angels on “Angel From Montgomery” to be saved from a loveless marriage, lost dreams and a life devoid of purpose. Various covers of this song by John Denver, Bonnie Raitt and Tanya Tucker helped popularize the song, and Raitt’s version, in particular, is an absolute knockout

Several tracks from Prine’s second album, Diamonds In The Rough are also performed, including “Rocky Mountain Time,” the hilarious sing-along encore of “Everybody” and a powerfully moving “Clocks and Spoons” However, what is possibly most delightful here is the appearance of the new songs that would be included on Prine’s third album, Sweet Revenge, including his classic “Grandpa Was A Carpenter.” On this album, Prine ventured into increasingly cryptic lyrical terrain. “Please Don’t Bury Me” and “The Accident (Things Could Be Worse)” are both brilliantly written songs that remain open to interpretation, while the overtly comical “Dear Abby” and the doleful holiday carol, “Christmas In Prison,” display Prine’s sharp wit and wry sense of humor.

For anyone interested in contemporary folk music and its history, John Prine is a required course and his first album is absolutely essential listening. This recording is a perfect overview of Prine’s early career containing many of the highlights from those first three albums and most of the songs that cemented his reputation. Prine is hysterically funny here, but he is always just as thought provoking, able to strike a nerve way down deep, often in the same song. Common Sense (1975), Bruised Orange (1978), Pink Cadillac (1979) and Storm Windows (1980) followed, as did more classic songs–“Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis,” “Hare Krishna Beauregard,” “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” and “Crooked Piece of Time” Eventually, Prine discovered that his escape from the world had become a world unto itself.

Maybe you’ve never heard a John Prine song in your life. But if someone spun his 1978 album Bruised Orange for you, unprimed and unprepared, my bet is you’d be smitten within the first few seconds of that record’s first song, the jaunty “Fish and Whistle.” To the tune of one especially chirpy flute, Prine sings, “We’ll forgive each other ‘til we both turn blue.” It doesn’t matter how much beautiful nonsense he crams into his folk songs, John Prine always leaves a nugget of wisdom. Isn’t that a beautiful idea, that we’ll all just keep forgiving each other as long as we live, because that’s part of being a human? End your feuds; do it for John.

He enjoyed the early 90’s comeback album that many of his era who had flailed a bit during the 80s did, thanks to the Heartbreaker-filled The Missing Years in 1991. And he proved one of the world’s most charming duet partners on 1999’s In Spite Of Ourselves, as he and Iris DeMent turned the title track into one of most romantic warts-and-all songs of all time. His live performances constantly reminded everyone both of his incredible songbook and of his boundless charisma; contemporary and younger artists revered him; and awards and honours came in with regularity.

Prine returned with his first original album in 13 years a few years ago. The Tree Of Forgiveness included guests like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Dan Auerbach, and Brandi Carlisle, but Prine still stole the show. The heartbreak of “Summer’s End” and the feistiness of “When I Get To Heaven” proved that he hadn’t lost anything.

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