Today the world mourns one of the greatest songwriters to have ever walked the earth, the US folk and country legend, John Prine. The singer sadly died on 7th April after contracting coronavirus.
Prine may not have been as commercially successful as his peers but the singer had an uncanny way with words, able to heap the pains of reality on your lap in the most beautifully simple ways. For many, his song ‘Sam Stone’ will be his lasting imprint on the musical world.
Born and raised on the outskirts of Chicago, Prine only picked up playing guitar and singing as a hobby during downtime as his role as a postman after returning from the from a spell in the US Army. It was here that he wrote most of his classic songs as he contemplated life trudging the streets of Chicago. He began to grow in confidence and frequented clubs around the city, enjoying the folk revival scene to it’s fullest.
One night would change his life when, after complaining about the talent on show at an Open Mic night, he was challenged to do better. Prine didn’t back down and after rounding off a three-song set he was met with rapturous applause and a meal ticket. The club owner offered him a residency which could allow him to quit the day job and make music his number one priority.
With his friend Steve Goodman, Prine would become a known face o the club circuit as his songwriting continued to improve. It was in Chicago that Prine came across Kris Kristofferson who instantly took a liking to him. Kristofferson was so impressed with Prine’s songwriting ability he said to his pals, “we’ll have to break his thumbs.”
Prine then visited New York where he met with Kristofferson who arranged for the singer to play a small set with big potential. The room was filled to the rafters with record label executives and Prine’s opportunity was laid out in front of him. Never one to miss a beat, the singer delivered a spellbinding lesson in how to write authentic and deeply personal songs. He was signed to Atlantic Records the very next day.
“Luck has a good deal to do with it, luck and timing,” once said Prine of his meteoric rise. “But when the luck and timing comes along, you’ve got to have the goods.” And boy did he have the goods, and from the very beginning too. On his self-titled debut LP, the singer provided a crystalline vision of everyday life wrapped up in the most delicately balanced of light and dark.
While Prine was able to capture the heartwarming moments of humanity he was also an expert at portraying the darkest moments in our life. One of the most notable songs in his extensive back catalogue is the vividly heartwrenching tale of a soldier returning from the war, the heartbreaking ‘Sam Stone.’
In a 2009 interview, the great Bob Dylan once said, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the Nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone,’ the soldier-junkie-daddy,” he continued, “Nobody but Prine could write like that.”
It’s true. Prine’s ability to take on as dark a subject matter such as the one in ‘Sam Stone’ and somehow make it beautiful, is bewildering. The track is centred around the lifeless energy of a soldier/father/man who has seen so much killing in his short life that he can see no other option but to kill himself a small piece at a time. It’s a stark and sullen image of a Purple Heart wearing junky soldier that only Prine could sing with such plain authenticity.
The true greatness of Prine is how he delivers it.
In the performance below, Prine, welcomed by his host, is a humble man. Smiling and gentle he approaches the mic quietly and without the need for any gimmicks or flashy behaviour. Instead, he sings his song, with his unique vocal, and allows the words and the music to take over the stage for him. There’s no need for anything else when the music is this good.
Prine may well have not been a commercial success in comparison to other great storytellers like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen. But if you asked any one of them who was the greatest songwriter of all time, they’d all point to John Prine.
Watch below as John Prine sings his song about a soldier ‘Sam Stone.’