Entertainment

Acclaimed singer-songwriter John Prine dead at 73 of COVID-19 complications

John Prine, the plain-spoken singer-songwriter whose body of work saw him shift effortlessly between poignant reflections on mortality and humorous takes on life's absurdities, has died after falling ill with COVID-19, his family announced on Tuesday.

Prine, a winner of 2 Grammys, had his songs covered by an array of artists

John Prine poses in his office in Nashville, Tenn., in 2017. The acclaimed singer-songwriter took ill on March 27 with what was described as a 'sudden onset' of COVID-19. (Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press)

John Prine, the plain-spoken singer-songwriter whose body of work saw him shift effortlessly between poignant reflections on mortality and humorous takes on life's absurdities, has died. He was 73.

His family announced his death from complications from the coronavirus; he died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Prine took ill on March 27 with what was described in a statement from his family as a "sudden onset" of the illness, and was intubated two days later.

His wife Fiona, who tested positive on March 18 and has since recovered, updated fans on the singer's battle with the coronavirus and asked them to pray for him. She said in an update last week on social media that the musician had developed pneumonia after being admitted to hospital.

Prine in January was honoured with a lifetime achievement Grammy, and in 2019 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

WATCH | Prine released his most-recent album, Tree of Forgiveness, just two years ago — and played sold-out venues touring it. The record ranges from contemplative ballads to toe-tappers such as Knockin' on Your Screen Door:

Over the course of his five-decade career, he won two Grammy Awards among 11 nominations in his career, with his songs recorded over the years by artists as diverse as Bette Midler, Serena Ryder, Dwight Yoakam, Marianne Faithfull and My Morning Jacket.

As with many musicians, Prine had several tour dates scheduled before the pandemic hit, including seven shows in four Canadian provinces this summer, with a planned headlining slot at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Prine was born on Oct. 10, 1946 in Maywood, Ill., and learned guitar from his brother. After finishing high school, Prine got a job as a postal worker in Chicago — "I delivered more junk mail than the junkyard would hold," he would sing on 1995's Ain't Hurtin' Nobody. He would later describe thinking of words and melodies on his mail route, and continue to write lyrics during a two-year stint in the army in the mid-1960s that interrupted his civilian employment.  

Prine worked up the nerve to try out his songs on audiences in the late '60s at open mic nights in Chicago.

"I got up there and never felt more comfortable in my life than when that spotlight hit me," he told The Associated Press in 1978.

The likes of Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka were impressed by Prine performances they caught at shows in Chicago and New York, helping to create momentum for a deal with Atlantic Records.

WATCH | One of Prine's early hits was Sam Stone, about the effects of the Vietnam War:

Raves for his debut

Prine's self-titled debut in 1971, later included in Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 best albums ever, ushered in a songwriter of unique talent.

Tearjerkers Hello in There and Sam Stone — about cognitive decline in seniors and the Vietnam War's byproduct of drug addiction among vets, respectively — were tempered by light-hearted fare like the marijuana ode Illegal Smile.

WATCH | Hello in There was another hit off Prine's 1971 debut:

The rueful lyrics of Paradise, about coal mining's impact in his parents' birth regions in Kentucky, were sung to a rather joyous bluegrass sound.

Angel from Montgomery, with its beleaguered housewife, resonated with female performers: Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon, Tanya Tucker and Toronto's Leslie Spit Treeo would all record versions through the years.

Prine is seen with longtime friend Bonnie Raitt on Jan. 26 at the Grammy Awards at in Los Angeles, where he received a special lifetime achievement award. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

By 1980, Prine had released six more albums, receiving plaudits for character studies like Souvenirs, Christmas in Prison and Storm Windows.

But he soon tired of the vagaries of big-label demands, relocating to Nashville and forming Oh Boy Records in 1981 with a couple of friends. In addition to his own recordings, the label began in the 1990s to release works by the likes of Kristofferson and Janis Ian.

Though critically acclaimed Prine's albums were selling modestly. But a five-year absence and the opening of new radio formats for adult alternative and Americana music saw 1991's The Missing Years greeted enthusiastically, with guest turns by Raitt, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen — all at or near the peak of their own commercial success — helping to create buzz.

That album's All the Best, about the end of a relationship, became a particularly well-covered song through the years, while the title track pondered a question that has confounded religious scholars for hundreds of years — how Jesus spent his teen and early adult years. Among Jesus' adventures, Prine reckoned:

"He discovered the Beatles /

"He recorded with the Stones /

"He even opened up a three-way package /

"In Southern California for old George Jones."

WATCH | Prine performs All the Best live on the TV program Sessions at West 54th:

Prine would tell Rolling Stone magazine he was flattered by a Grammy win for best contemporary folk album for The Missing Years, but when asked where he kept the trophy, replied: "On the mantle with a miniature bar, a little guy wearing lederhosen and an ashtray full of thumbtacks."

Cancer battles

The follow-up Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (1995) was also well received — particularly for Lake Marie, an evocative song that often closed his shows, in which Prine seemed to bring all of his songwriting skills to bear: humour, nostalgia, a singalong chorus and an unpredictable change of tone in the song's last verse.

Prine was touring to receptive audiences and gaining younger fans who were attracted to his material and humorous asides between songs, but was delivered a setback two years later when a tumour in his neck required surgery. When he re-emerged, the shape of his face and the tenor of his voice had been changed a result of the operation, but his loyal fans didn't mind.

With characteristic humour, Prine in 2017 posted a "favourite" review:

The duets album In Spite of Ourselves in 1999 featured songs with Iris DeMent, Trisha Yearwood and Lucinda Williams, among others, and he would later garner his second Grammy for contemporary folk album for 2005's Fair and Square.

Prine, who would famously extol his penchant for procrastinating instead of writing songs in interviews, told CBC's Q in 2018 he had to temporarily relocate to a Nashville hotel to produce what would be his last full release of songs, The Tree of Forgiveness.

LISTEN l Prine on CBC Radio's Q in 2018:

"Ten boxes of unfinished lyrics, three guitars and a ukulele and I came out a week later with a record," he said.

WATCH | Prine discusses his last album, and Rosanne Cash and other artists talk about his influence on their music:

By that point, he was a few years removed from a bout with lung cancer. Despite the health setbacks and a long career full of ups and downs, Prine in the same interview marvelled at his good fortune.

"I'm having a pretty good time for a 71-year-old," he said. "I got a couple of grandkids and things are just rolling along really great, they're all kind of going my way."

Prine is the latest musician to die from COVID-19-related causes, a list that has included Nashville country singer Joe Diffie, Afrobeat legend Manu Dibango and Adam Schelisinger of Fountains of Wayne.

with files from The Associated Press

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