John Prine, the iconic country folk singer-songwriter whose music was largely known for its humorous brand of social commentary, has died. Per The New York Times, the family confirmed that the artist died due to complications from COVID-19. Prine had entered the hospital on Thursday, March 26 with severe symptoms. He was 73 years old.
Born in Maywood, Illinois, Prine had learned to play the guitar at the age of 14. After serving with the U.S. armed forces in Germany, he moved to Chicago in the late 1960s and worked as a mailman. As a hobby, he wrote and performed music. After performing in a number of local open mic nights (Roger Ebert actually wrote Prine’s very first review, calling him a “great songwriter”), he became a key figure in the Chicago folk revival alongside Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, Tom Dundee, and others. He was later discovered by fellow singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, which led to the production of Prine’s self-titled debut album with Atlantic Records in 1971. The collection included a number of his quintessential songs, including “Sam Stone,” “Angels From Montgomery,” and “Paradise.” He followed his debut record with five albums in the ‘70s alone, including two with Asylum Records.
In 1981, Prine co-founded Oh Boy Records alongside his manager, Al Bunetta, and their friend Dan Einstein. After growing tired of the business aspect of making music, Prine decided that the next move he would make after fulfilling his contract with Asylum would be to his own label. He once spoke of his decision to start his own label:
“When I finally wanted to do a record, I just didn’t want to go shopping for a label at the time. Also, it was a time when it wouldn’t have been real easy to. There were several major labels that were talking to us, asking what I was doing and I just didn’t want to start all over again like at Asylum... there’s a lot of them I can’t stand to be in an elevator with. It’s the only way I can put it. It’s like, ‘Why am I working here? I’ll just move on to another factory and the factory would be my own factory because still I was looking at it that I made my living as a performing artist.’ So, that’s how Oh Boy Records was born.”
Prine was a two-time Grammy winner, taking home the statuette for Best Contemporary Folk Album in both 1991 (The Missing Years) and 2005 (Fair & Square). In 2001, he co-starred in Billy Bob Thornton’s comedy-drama film Daddy And Them. During the closing credits, you can hear Prine’s duet with Iris DeMent, “In Spite Of Ourselves.” Throughout the 2010s Prine was the subject of many tributes, including an album in 2010 from Oh Boy Records called Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: The Songs of John Prine and inclusion in the American Currents exhibit at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. In 2018—13 years after his previous album of original music— Prine released The Tree Of Forgiveness. It was his highest charting album on the Billboard 200.
Prior to his death, Prine was a two-time cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in 1998 with squamous cell cancer and again in 2013 with lung cancer. Fans and colleagues remember him as a fighter with an indelible mark on the folk music landscape. He is survived by his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine.