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(Credit: Eric Frommer)

How film critic Roger Ebert accidentally launched John Prine’s career

The importance of timing can never be overstated. Likewise, the right review in the right place at the right time can also make or break a budding artist’s career. For American songwriting legend John Prine, all those chips fell into place at once under very unlikely circumstances, as Roger Ebert ended up inadvertently launching his career. No doubt the late esteemed movie critic had a similar bearing on many creatives’ lives, but usually pertaining to the world of film rather than folk. 

“Through no wisdom of my own but out of sheer blind luck,” Ebert wrote on his website, “I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage, one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing. This was John Prine.”

Adding, “He sang his own songs. That night I heard ‘Sam Stone’, one of the great songs of the century. And ‘Angel from Montgomery’. And others. I wasn’t the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I went to the office and wrote an article. And that, as fate decreed, was the first review Prine ever received.”

As it turned out, Ebert had been paid to review a film that fateful night; however, the picture was so bad that he couldn’t bring himself to sit through the whole thing. He waltzed from the cinema into the night and began looking for a beer to cut through the lingering taste of bad popcorn and worse acting. He popped into the Fifth Peg and heard John Prine perform. He was so moved by the performance that he slipped from celluloid to songbook to pen an impassioned review. 

His piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, from the 9th of October 1970, ran with the headline: “Singing mailman who delivers a powerful message in a few words.” Therein Ebert describes the lyrical genius and stirring performer, John Prine, whom he witnessed simply by chance. 

The piece eulogises the folk upstart, stating: “He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

With the dirge of the seminal ‘Sam Stone’ still ringing in his head, the revered film critic even popped an extra ‘I’ in Prine for good measure, writing: “You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday on Saturday.”

Naturally, Prine’s talent would have likely given him a footing in the industry by one means or another, but with the amount of songwriting talent occupying the dusty backrooms of dive bars the world over in the early 1970s, his fame was far from foregone. Ebert’s review helped to raise awareness of his underground presence and ensured he would rightfully emerge from the subterranean world to songwriting stardom soon enough. 

Less than a year after Ebert’s piece was published, John Prine released his self-titled debut featuring many of the songs mentioned in the review. The record went on to great acclaim, and in 1972, Prine would be nominated as Best New Artist at the Grammys and his future in the industry was cemented, all thanks to an awful movie.

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