John Prine was the humble legend. Whether he was performing to twenty people in a little bar in Soho or in front of more than 10,000 adoring fans at Newport Folk Festival, the Illinois native treated every spectator like a friend. Like we were a part of his extended family. Creating a warm and welcoming environment is rare these days, but every Prine show felt like a perfect day at the cottage.
When Prine was diagnosed with squamous-cell cancer in 1998, the music community held its collective breath. When he returned to the stage, we exhaled. While his voice developed a raspy tone following surgery and rehabilitation, his warm and affable personality and self-deprecating humor remained. In 2013, cancer would affect his left lung, but he was back on tour six months after surgery. Like his early days as a mailman, Prine was not going to be stopped from delivering his stories to the people.
Three months after receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Prine’s voice went quiet. Neither cancer nor more than fifty years of performing and touring could stop him, but a global pandemic did. On April 7, 2020, John Prine passed away at the age of 73 as a result of compilations associated with COVID-19.
Tomorrow, Newport Folk Festival was scheduled to commence, but like all festivals it has been canceled. Should the show have gone on, the Festival undoubtedly would have paid tribute to “Tippy Toes Two”, who once upon a time was an accomplished, high-school gymnast. Today, a handful of artists share their favorite John Prine songs on ‘The Artists Speak’. While we usually aggregate their selections, this volume is unfiltered. It’s the only way to acknowledge a legend who was like a grandfather to us all.
Favorite John Prine Songs as Chosen by the Artists
Bob Harrow of Immigrant Union
I know this will probably sound like a cop out but my favourite John Prine songs are all on his self-titled album. Actually, any John Prine song I hear is awesome, but his first album is the record I know best. So they are my top 10 favourite songs even though I think there is like 13 or something songs on it.
I first got switched onto John Prine by my band mate Brent. This was before we started Union. I was like 21, and I was visiting him and his partner Sarah in Portland for a couple weeks. In those weeks, Brent also got me onto the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and My Bloody Valentine. Christ it was a good couple weeks. The song I first remember hearing was “Illegal Smile” and it blew my mind both in a rad songwriting way and a comedic way.
I was lucky enough to see Prine play last year in Melbourne. I recorded the show on my iPhone and still play the shit out of it.
My favourite songs:
1. “Illegal Smile” – As far as I can tell this is the first song commenting on how stupid it is that pot is illegal….”won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone, no, I’m just trying to have me some fun.” So rad.
2. “Sam Stone” – I mean if ya chucked this song in a poll, it could just about come out as the greatest lyrics ever written. Obviously it tells the story of how war can fuck people up badly in a PTSD way and how during the Vietnam War returning service people were quite often treated like shit, which wouldn’t have helped the former. “…Sam Stones welcome home, didn’t last too long…There’s a whole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”. Really great melody on this song too.
3. “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” – This one ain’t on that first record. I’m stoked on how I first heard this, which was when I saw Prine play live in Melbourne in 2019. The same thing happened to me with the Neil Young song “Ambulance Blues.” I’d never heard those songs until I heard the respective dudes play ’em live. Prine’s song is so bloody good. I had it stuck in my head after the show and luckily I had recorded it, so I went straight home and listened to it probably a good 20 times in a row. Check it out.
Immigrant Union’s new album, ‘Judas’, is out now. Get it on Bandcamp.
I ranked 8 because that is how many favorites I could rank before I need to devote myself to other endeavors.
1. “Quiet Man” – This song, this self-titled album is what got me into John Prine. He paints himself perfectly, a man at peace among the chatter, projection and nonsense of the world around him. The verses trudge on but in the chorus chords, he sidesteps to the major bVII (or subtonic) which mechanizes a pause to say hold on hold on… “You got news for me / I got nothing for you / Don’t pin your blues on me.”
2. “Hello In There”
3. “When I Get To Heaven” – This is a perfect half-spoken, half-raucous folk song written as an older man facing the end of his life. The most incredible songs often make beautiful light of the absolutely devastating. He does it here with pure joy and celebration – “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” The ridiculous visual exaggeration of something so awful for us but so deviantly pleasurable will continue to be funny til the end of time.
4. “Pretty Good”
5. “Sam Stone”
6. “That’s The Way The World Goes Round”
7. “Flashback Blues” – I first noticed this song as a live solo recording, so I recommend it in that pure form. This is just a good example of John Prine hook-writing and poking at the un-pokeable. In a time when many men didn’t want to talk about the service, he just made it part of his work. That’s what a good songwriter does – puts the human experience into song especially the difficult and unspeakable parts, that’s medicine.
8. “I Have Met My Love Today”
John Prine writes songs like my favourite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., writes prose: small words, big concepts, no frills. His melodies and song structures are the same way: efficient, effective, and timeless. There’s a John Prine song for every occasion – happy, sad, mundane or painfully specific – and you can rest assured, that you’ve got no wound that a John Prine song can’t start to heal.
Here’s my top ten:
1. “Angel From Montgomery” – Everybody favourite John Prine tune. Like those of Leonard Cohen, Prine’s songs are generously constructed, so they can fit other singers perfectly. I had no idea who Prine was when I heard it, but have always been a Bonnie Raitt Fan, because of songs like this.
2. “Magnolia Wind” – I love the imagery in the song, and the romantic silliness. He was not afraid to lay it all on the line. And the change into the chorus sounds like a screen door blowing open in the spring, on the gust of a sweet smelling wind.
3. “All the Best” – One of the best break-up songs of all time. The pain, intermingled with confusing remnants of love and passive-aggressive anger, is just perfection.
4) “Far From Me”
5) “Summers End”
6) “Some Humans Ain’t Human” – This song is like talking to a wizened friend, who has seen the shittier side of humanity but still manages to have a sense of humour about it. I don’t know what Prine’s politics were, but this song hints that he and I probably would have got along just fine. Perfect song for 2020.
7) “Somewhere Someone’s Falling in Love” – I just love the optimism in this song. You get the feeling he was always looking out for people who were hurting. You just want to hug him because in a few years he’s gonna write “All The Best”.
8) “Hello In There”
9) “My Happiness”
10) “Ain’t Hurtin Nobody”
The Toronto-based singer-songwriter’s fourth EP, ‘Hearts & Heads & Thoughts & Deeds’ is coming in September with pre-orders available on Bandcamp. In the meantime, check out the record’s first single, “The Guy Who Breaks Things”.
Luke Bentham of The Dirty Nil
John Prine came to me at the perfect time in my life. I was lonely, on tour and in need of something new. The first suggested album in my new Spotify account was John Prine’s: Sweet Revenge. I instantly recognized the cover as one of the few that occupied my family’s station wagon as a kid. It screamed effortless cool and reckless passivity. I clicked, Sweet Revenge began, and my life changed. I became obsessed with that album and dug back through all of his work and was surprised by the quality control across such a vast catalog. When I say that John Prine is a friend of mine, even though I never met him, I’m probably not alone when I say it.
1. “Sweet Revenge” – The song that started me on my path. Also, probably his most rocking, Rolling Stones style tune. It will always be my favourite. How can you deny a song that begins with the line: “I got kicked off of Noah’s ark”?
2. “Please Don’t Bury Me”
4. “When I Get to Heaven” – The perfect conclusion to John Prine’s final studio album. This song shatters the notion that artists only have a certain amount of good songs in them before they lose touch. One of the greatest choruses of all time: “Then Im gonna get a cocktail, vodka and gingerale / Then im gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long”.
5. “Sam Stone”
6. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven” – A perfect critique of nationalism and its absurdity, all through the lens of Prine’s signature humour. This will always be one of my favourites.
7. “That’s the Way that the World Goes Round”
8. “Hello In There”
9. “Dear Abby”
10. “In Spite of Ourselves”
Ryan Hamilton of Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts.
John Prine was already a genius songwriter. But as he got older and his voice aged along with him, he just kept getting better. The older, more gravel-y version of his voice just gave his songs even more of a timeless, story vibe. It also made his voice sound more like home. I will forever be sad that I never got to meet him, but all songwriters should be thankful we have John Prine to look to for an endless well of inspiration
1. “In Spite of Ourselves”
2. “Sam Stone” – The first time I heard, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm / Where all the money goes”, I lost my shit. What a lyric! Moving, powerful, and genius. Anytime I’m going over lyrics, this lyric is in the back of my mind, pushing me further.
3. “When I Get to Heaven” – I already loved this song. But when he passed, it became a whole different thing. It’s a fun, joyous song, but somehow (and this is a testament to the genius of John Prine) it pulls at your heartstrings. I cried the first time it came on after he’d gone.
4. “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door”
5. “Angel From Montgomery”
6. “The Late John Garfield Blues”
7. “The Lonesome Friends of Science”
8. “Long Monday”
9. “Spanish Pipedream”
10. “Egg & Daughter Nite” – The story behind why this song was written (which he told often and you should go check out on YouTube) is entertaining enough! Put that aside, and the fact that the man can even write a beautiful song with the lyrics, “Egg & Daughter Nite”, is yet another feather in John Prine’s cap of songwriting genius.
The band’s anthemic rock ‘n roll single, “Jesus & John Lennon”, is out now. Watch the video on YouTube.
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