It’s been a monumental month for one of Nashville’s most masterful songwriters, John Prine. As October rolled in, Prine’s latest album of duets with women, “For Better, or Worse,” was released and debuted at #2 on the Country Charts, making it the highest-charting album of his career. A week later, he celebrated his 70th birthday with a series of star-studded, sold-out shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. To mark this milestone, The Bitter Southerner talked to people — friends, family members, collaborators — who adore Prine as much as we do. We’re proud to present an oral history, of sorts, of one of the wittiest, sweetest, most talented musicians alive.
Story by Jonathan Bernstein | Illustrations by GENTLEMAN
Singer-songwriter Iris DeMent couldn’t help but smile when she woke up on a snowy winter morning in Nashville earlier this year. DeMent, who has been close friends with fellow songwriter John Prine for nearly 25 years, was in town to record a duet with John, and she had spent the night as a guest of John and his wife Fiona at their home. That morning, after John fried up some bacon for breakfast, the two set out for the studio. When they arrived, DeMent was immediately greeted by the familiar sounds, smells and sights of Allentown Studios, where she recorded her first two albums in the early ’90s.
“It was a room full of people I’ve known for what seems like forever, John being one of them,” DeMent says. “Jim Rooney, who produced my first two records, was producing, and him and I go way back, so it was like being in the living room. It felt like the bacon was there, even though we left the bacon back at John’s house. It felt like home.”
DeMent also couldn’t help but laugh when she and John began singing a Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb duet from 1969 called “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out.”
Earlier that morning, Iris had watched Fiona put on her winter parka, bundle up in the snow, and drag the Prine family’s garbage bin down the driveway, declaratively answering the rhetorical question their tongue-in-cheek duet posed. Fiona, it was clear, is going to take the garbage out.
“That was great in the song, John, but we know who takes the garbage out at home,” DeMent says jokingly months later, before clarifying that yes, she’s sure John and Fiona truly do share the chore.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” would end up becoming the opening track to “For Better, or Worse,” Prine’s new album of old-time country duets, which serves as a sequel of sorts to his acclaimed 1999 duets collection “In Spite of Ourselves,” an album best known for its cute, comical, borderline raunchy title duet sung by none other than Prine and DeMent.
One of the most exciting parts of Prine’s new album is the roster of today’s generation of young, country-folk singer-songwriters he’s recruited to sing with him. Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert, Holly Williams, Kacey Musgraves and Morgane Stapleton all appear on "For Better, or Worse," alongside more established names like Lee Ann Womack and Alison Krauss.
Indeed, over the past couple decades, John Prine — unrivaled folk songwriter, defiant cancer survivor, devastating country vocalist, eternal road warrior, perpetual teddy bear — has added yet another title to his already impressive resume: devoted champion of the young and new. While most artists of his age and stature are generally content to settle down with the record collections of their youth, John Prine has become relentlessly musically curious with age, forever eager to hear the next young songwriter who knocks him off his feet, who, perhaps, reminds him of the type of literary, conversational, detail-oriented songwriting Prine himself had helped introduce to the worlds of country and folk music when he first began writing in the late ’60s.
“John checks out pretty much every record that comes out within his own genre,” says his wife Fiona. “He’s up on everybody.”
“He almost always has the radio or some CD on,” adds Jason Wilber, who has toured and recorded as Prine’s lead guitarist since 1996.
Prine has been discovering new artists for a long time. After all, it was another artist, the handsome, bright-eyed Kris Kristofferson, fresh off the release of his smash debut “Kristofferson,” who discovered Prine himself in 1971, when John was a recently retired mailman singing quirky little stories about destitute Vietnam veterans, discontented housewives and lonely old folks on the folk club circuit in Chicago.
Since then, for almost as long as he’s had a career, Prine has been returning the favor. He was a vocal supporter of Nanci Griffith when her career took off in the ’80s. He mentored a young Todd Snider in the early ’90s, eventually signing him to Prine’s own Oh Boy Records label. He championed Iris DeMent’s very first album, for which he wrote liner notes about crying into a skillet of pork chops as he listened to the young songwriter’s music: “DeMent starts singing about ‘Mama’s Opry,’” John wrote. “And being the sentimental fellow I am, I got a lump in my throat and a tear fell from my eyes into the hot oil. Well, the oil popped out and burnt my arms as if the pork chops were trying to say, ‘Shut up, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.’”
Since the ’90s, Prine has steadily become a committed advocate for each successive generation of literary-minded country-folk singer-songwriters. He’s also quietly proved to have one of the very best ears in the business, having invited everyone from Jason Isbell to Sturgill Simpson to Shovels & Rope to Justin Townes Earle to Margo Price to open for him on the road before any of the aforementioned names turned into the genre-defining standard bearers that they’ve become today.
“John looks to the younger generation to carry on whatever he’s created,” says Kacey Musgraves, another young country stalwart Prine has supported from the get-go, who appears on "For Better, or Worse."
Such admiration goes the other way, as well. For many of today’s best and brightest working singer-songwriters, John Prine’s music has had a profound impact, not only on their songwriting and their music, but also, just as often, on their entire philosophy and attitude toward life.
Over the past several months, The Bitter Southerner has interviewed a dozen people — most of whom are artists John has influenced and supported over the years, many of whom sang with John on "For Better, or Worse," several of whom have become close personal friends with John, and nearly all of whom have learned multitudes from eternally wise singer. They’ve learned lessons about the importance of conversational songwriting, about love, about life on the road, about pain, about detail-oriented storytelling, about good eating, about dignity, about professionalism, and about joy — from the man who once wrote the following words:
Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us, we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven
To celebrate John Prine’s 70th birthday and the release of his brand new album, we present a John Prine oral history of sorts: a collection of gathered stories, fond recollections, personal anecdotes and loving tributes to Nashville’s greatest living songwriter.
Fiona Prine (John’s wife and manager): John had come over to Ireland to participate in a film shoot for a new venue, and they were making a two-part TV special. Everybody that you can possibly imagine were there that night — John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Flaco Jimenez, Phil Everly, Guy Clark, Cowboy Jack Clement. It was a huge music festival, and they were filming, and I was working in the industry doing some of the production for the show, so that’s how I met John. The first time we talked, I told him I really enjoyed his music and wondered if maybe he was going to play an independent concert somewhere else in Ireland, and he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m getting ready to play some music right now.” It was an after party, and so all of the guys I had just mentioned were sitting in various spots in this big bar playing music. John just said, “Do you want to come over? We’re going to sing right now.” That was the beginning.
Todd Snider (singer-songwriter): I met John when he was making demos for “The Missing Years” in Memphis. It would have been something like ’88 or ’89 or ’90. Keith Sykes was the producer, and Keith was sort of my mentor. So, when Keith got the call to do these demos for John, Keith hired me to be the person who went and drove John around. Anytime John needed a cigarette or vodka, I would go get it. I got to watch the whole thing. One afternoon they made up “You Got Gold” in Keith’s backyard. Keith woke up from a nap and John was in his backyard just singing, “You’ve got gold,” just singing that chorus over and over.
The first week, I had this gig I did Thursdays at a local bar, and John came to the gig, and he got up and played a couple songs, and then stayed after and played a lot of “The Missing Years” for me and Keith and the bar owner. He did “All The Best,” “Everything Is Cool,” “Jesus, The Missing Years,” “All My Lovin’” by the Beatles, but it was country, and he did “If I Could, Then I Would” by Tim Carroll.
At first, he was as wide open and as normal as you can be, and I never got over it. I still am not myself when he’s around. And he’s cool about that, he gets it that he makes me nervous. John said the first time he met me, I had this look on my face like everything in the room was maybe going to kick the shit out of me. He was like, “Even that ketchup bottle, I got the feeling you weren’t totally trusting that it’s not going to jump up and jump in your face.” He told me that like 10 years later.
Iris DeMent: I remember the first time I met John quite well. I was doing a show at a little club in Nashville before my first record came out. There were maybe 40 people there, and I looked out to the back of the room and standing behind the sound man, with his back up against the wall, was a familiar face. John was directly in my sightline and he was the only person standing, and the only person who the lights fell on, so I did my show, nervously as always, looking him right in the eye. We had not yet spoken at that point, but I can remember it vividly. We were both in the spotlight in opposite sides of the room. I remember I had my wedding dress on. It was the only nice dress I owned. We spoke a little bit after that.
Kathy Mattea (country singer): My first vivid memory of John is from Steve Goodman’s memorial service and tribute concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. My picture is just of him sitting up front in the seats during the soundcheck and just very quietly listening to everybody. He was way up front, you wouldn’t have hardly even noticed him, but he was just listening to everybody play the songs of his friend. It was like he had a kind of fierce loyalty, a really solid loyalty, like he was going to show up. There was just a real feeling that he was there because he had so much respect for Steve. You could really tell that there was something between John and Steve where they were sort of kindred spirits.
Holly Williams (singer-songwriter): I used to see John around Nashville at a sandwich place, and I’d be like, “I’m not going to be that girl that talks to John Prine while he’s eating a roast beef sandwich.” I was a massive fan for years, but the first time I met John, I was getting a car at a car lot in Nashville, and he was buying a car there as well, because … only in Nashville. I remember what car I was buying because it was the worst mistake I ever made in my life. It was when I was young and stupid and thought I could handle a monthly car payment for a used Range Rover. John was buying a new Range Rover, which he deserved, and I did not.
Jason Wilber (Prine’s lead guitarist since 1996): Everything is a funny story with John. John’s bass player, Dave Jacques, says that, and it’s really true. John can tell you about when he got up that morning and went down to buy a newspaper, and it’d be an entertaining story.
Amanda Shires (singer-songwriter): When I first opened for John, I did three dates the first time, and I was just really grateful. We were all together on the second-to-last night, and we all put on our comfortable clothes. I had a catsuit, my tour manager had a catsuit, my friend Kelly had a catsuit, and I asked John if I could get my picture with him, and he said yeah. After we took the picture with us in the catsuits, John said, “If they made a pajama suit that was a sock monkey, I’d wear it.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” And then I said, “I think they do make those.” So, on the third night, I think it was our last night on tour, I sent him a bag to his dressing room with a sock monkey onesie in it, and he came out in the wings during my set wearing it. It was so hilarious it almost threw me off.
Todd Snider: I remember when Amanda got John to put on that pajama thing. That knocked everybody out; that really just knocked me out. That speaks to Amanda a lot. Only Amanda Shires….
Jason Wilber: John’s a very easygoing person, but he does have a competitive side to him, for sure. He loves to play cards and shoot pool. We bet on things, like the Kentucky Derby, so he likes to enjoy a little competition like that. I was really shocked to find out after I had been working with John for many years that he was a state champion gymnast as a teenager. It’s totally hilarious. That’s the competitive side of him that you would just never guess he has in a million a years.
Kacey Musgraves (country singer): Sometime earlier this year, I believe it was in January, I got to write with John at his house. He had me over, and I was going through a breakup, and my head wasn’t really in the right spot to write, so we just ended up swapping stories and talking the whole day about touring and Nashville and his life growing up in Chicago and some of the first jobs he had. There’s that line he has about bees (“Then I got fired for being scared of bees”), and at one point I asked him if he was really afraid of bees. He said that he was, and that he got fired from one of his first jobs cleaning up a drive-in movie theater parking lot. One day, he said he stirred up a bunch of bees and ran away from them, and then he got fired.
Iris DeMent: John tells a story about how he called me after he had his surgery (in 1998, Prine underwent substantial surgery and radiation treatment to remove cancer in his neck) and how he wanted to record a song called “In Spite of Ourselves” with me. When I saw the lyrics, I thought twice, to put it mildly. He’s not lying when he says I told him I wouldn’t record the song as long as my mom were alive, but I broke my word, and I did it anyway. I always liked to give my mom my records, and so I told him and his former manager, Al Bunetta, that “In Spite of Ourselves” was the first record I couldn’t give to my mother. The next thing you know, a copy of that CD shows up in the mail that looked exactly like the original, but it had that song removed, so I could give it to my mom.
Sara Watkins (singer-songwriter): One of the first times I was opening for John, he invited me to sit in and sing “In Spite of Ourselves” with him. I was so nervous that I was going to screw up his song, so I wrote some cue words on the inside of my arm. I ended up writing a lot of cue words and basically covering my whole forearm, because I became more paranoid that I was going to screw up these little things in front of John. But we sang that one, and I could tell he got a kick out of making me sing these slightly risque phrases. But after the song ended, he leaned over and said, “Looks like you’ve got the Declaration of Independence written on your arm.”
Todd Snider: I know my favorite thing to tell people about John. It’s this funny thing about him that’s interesting to me. He’s been on the road for 50 years, so when he travels, he travels with everything. And when I say everything, I mean all of his things. And he doesn’t have less things than most people, he just travels with all of his clothes and all of his shoes and not quite all of his condiments and these types of things, but pretty much. He brings his salt and pepper, and he brings his syrup. He travels with just about everything that he might use during the day, and I always thought that was really cool.
Jason Wilber: John is very routine- and habit-oriented. He likes to eat dinner right after the show. We do soundcheck at the same time every day, and we leave the hotel at the same time, and we play our show in thirds. We do the first third as a band, the second third is John solo, and the last third is the band again. He likes to go get a newspaper every day and read it. He likes to get the weekend edition of The New York Times and the Friday Wall Street Journal. He likes to read Archie comics.
He also takes a bunch of luggage with him on the road. He has all these different things that he likes to have, and they’re not special things, just certain clothes or books and stuff. He just likes to do things the way he does them. To me, what’s good about that is that when you’re on the road playing music and traveling, there are all these unexpected things that can happen, and in a way, every single day is different because you’re going over different roads to a different town to a different venue with different people to go to a different hotel, so there are so many things in your day that are just different and unpredictable. So, it’s really great to have a structure that you can put around all that, so you know what to expect for some things. It gives you a routine to keep the whole from devolving into stressful chaos. I think that’s probably why he does it, because it gives him something that’s kind of a home base to orient him every day, knowing you have these certain belongings with you and that certain things are going to happen at certain times every day.
Amanda Shires: John takes his Saturday nights seriously. He still watches “Saturday Night Live” and has his dinner each Saturday. He has his routines, and they’re cool. He’s also an excellent dancer. He’ll dance to anything. He’ll shake a tailfeather.
Kathy Mattea: “Angel from Montgomery” is so iconic, but for me, my favorite Prine song is “Paradise,” because of my own history coming from Appalachia and my grandfathers being coal miners and watching that story, watching strip mining and mountaintop removal come in and see what it’s done to the place I grew up in. John wrote “Paradise” before anybody really knew about that stuff or talked about it very much, and it’s still so relevant. I’ve had a closer and deeper personal relationship with that song over the years.
Miranda Lambert (country singer): I was introduced to John Prine’s music as a little girl, and I think the first time I ever really “felt” a song was when I was about 9 years old, and my dad played me “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” on his guitar. Even though I didn’t know at the time exactly what all the lyrics meant, I knew something inside me was moved.
Jim James (lead singer of My Morning Jacket): I got into John’s music when I was around 20. Like most people, it was his first album that really just blew my mind. I had never heard anything so humorous and kind, yet deeply moving, and I had never experienced day-to-day reality described in such a poetic and psychedelic way. John is a master at helping us see everyday things in life in greater detail, and I really believe he’s helped us appreciate life, savor its details, and help us find beauty in everyday things that are easily overlooked. There are too many favorites to name: the entire first record, the entire “Bruised Orange” album, “All the Best,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Unwed Fathers.”
Todd Snider: When I got to know John, my favorite song was “Chain of Sorrow,” and it’s still my sentimental favorite. One night it was me, John Prine, Guy Clark, Keith Sykes and Townes Van Zandt at 3 in the morning, and I was the drink refiller. For some reason, they would ask me what I wanted to hear, and they’d tell me why they wrote each song. It was the highlight of my songwriting life. So, that night, I asked John about “Chain of Sorrow” and how he thought up this whole idea of the altar boy getting hit by a train. I thought, “How do people do that?” In my mind, I thought it was some abstract thing. And John was like, “Well, one day I heard sirens on the train track, and I saw this altar boy that had been hit.”
Kacey Musgraves: I really just love “That’s The Way That the World Goes Round.” It’s just a true perspective. “You’re up one day and the next you’re down / It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.” You cannot get more simple and truthful than that. He delivers life in a really relatable way, and I love that.
Holly Williams: “Far From Me” has to be my favorite John Prine song. In my opinion, the greatest line ever written is, “A question ain’t really a question/When you know the answer too.” That’s what every therapist should really say, it’s just so amazing.
Iris DeMent: If I stopped and thought about it for too long I couldn’t answer because too many songs would flood in, but if I just speak from my emotional place, I would say my favorite John Prine song is “Mexican Home.” There’s some quality in that song that’s so deep, not brainy deep, but spirit deep. I sing that song sometimes around the house. There’s something in that song that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s very moving to me. It feels like a hymn. It has that quality of coming from the other world and reaching back to it, at the same time having one foot in this world.
Jason Wilber: His favorite post-show meal used to be meatloaf. Then, for a long time, it was shredded beef enchiladas, and then lately it’s been sushi. He’ll got a tuna roll or some sashimi. And then there’s always a pepperoni pizza as his backup. That way, if the main course is bad he can just eat pizza. Smart. The voice of experience.
Amanda Shires: The other night, we were trying to determine if the meatloaf after the show was really meatloaf, or if it was better to go with pizza. If we’re anywhere that’s not landlocked, John’s always trying to find the best oysters and clam chowder.
Holly Williams: It’s funny, John has the most un-rock and roll tour. The first few nights I toured with John, the manager told me that he loves birthday cake, and no matter what city we were in, we get birthday cake after the show, and I’m thinking, they must be kidding. I mean, I love birthday cake and all, but on the first night literally we left the stage, went to the back room and then we all sat around and ate cake and told stories. At the time, I was pregnant, so no sex, drugs and rock and roll for me, so I was like, “I’m pregnant and eating birthday cake and I’ll be in bed by 10.” It was awesome.
Amanda Shires: John has this drink that he likes. It’s called a Handsome Johnny, and it’s Smirnoff Vodka with diet ginger ale. He doesn’t drink much, but that’s the drink that he makes the bartender make him. I don’t know if you’ve tasted one, but you should taste it. It is really not a good drink, but because John Prine likes it, I’ve somehow managed to develop a taste for it.
Jim James: I was opening for him in San Fran, and we met backstage. He invited us to join him for “Paradise” during the encore and handed me his old Martin guitar, and then we sat and strummed and sang in. One of the coolest moments of my life was to be sitting there with one of my heroes and have him treat me so kind and make me feel so welcome. You really do get the sense that he does not hold himself above others or view himself in a special light. Even though his genius is so evident, he’s still just one of the people.
Sara Watkins: The first time I met John, it was probably seven years ago. It was on stage in Nashville at a screenwriter’s conference, and there was this backyard barbecue set up for a private party, and John was there. I met him on stage, standing next to him. I was playing the fiddle during “Paradise,” the big finale number, and I started playing next to him and he just gestured towards the mic that I should take a solo and play into the mic and sing harmony with him. That’s how we met.
Todd Snider: If you open for John, he brings you back out to do “Paradise” at the end, and you get to play the Martin he wrote it on. He’s been doing it with everybody for decades. The first time I was ever going to play “Paradise” with him, I came out and got handed this guitar. Then, John and I are standing back at this table with a big pile of guitar picks, like 50 of them. I said, “Hey, can I borrow one of these picks? I don’t have one on me,” and he was like, “Oh yeah, sure.” And then I reached down into this pile and grabbed one and he was like, “Not that one, though.” And the crowd is cheering and everything, and I’m so scared, and I’m like “Oh, shit, sorry man.” And then I grab a different one and he goes, “Oh, not that one either, not that one either.” And I throw those down, and I’m like “Oh my god, I can’t even grab the right one,” and so I grab another one and look up at him and asked, “Is this one OK?” And he’s just smiling at me like, “I can’t believe you let me do that twice.” It really broke the ice of going out there and singing. I couldn’t help but laugh, and then I wasn’t so nervous. I thought that was so cool.
Jason Wilber: I would say that 80 percent of the people who end up opening shows realize that John’s going to ask them to sing “Paradise” and they show up prepared for it; they do their homework before playing the gig. John or the tour manager will always ask them before the show. There are a few people who are caught unawares, but even those people usually know at least the chorus to sing along to. There are some performances that stand out. On the first tour I did with John, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt were both at one of the shows, and they both got up and sang “Paradise.” That really stuck in my mind.
Patty Griffin (singer-songwriter): John has something going on in him that's kind of like the Dalai Lama, at least for me. You want to be around him to catch the pearls of wisdom. The people in his songs are pretty regular and he speaks very plainly about them, but with such a natural warmth and gigantic wit, it lifts them up and makes them seem noble. He does it all in a completely understated way, which is a dying art. Also, the twinkle in his eye, which is real, somehow made its way into his voice and fingerpicking. That's pretty cool, too.
Holly Williams: I’ll never forget when John said to me, “Holly, why do you need a drummer behind those songs? You don’t need no drummer.” He would tell me the words in the song need to shine, and they shine through best when there’s less stuff on stage, which is so true.
Miranda Lambert: I’m not sure I will ever be able to grasp the depths of John’s fearlessness when it comes to his art. He is a different kind of storyteller, the kind that anyone that calls themselves a songwriter can only dream of becoming.
Todd Snider: He’s given me a ton of advice over the years, and never once about money. He’d say, “Play that song. Don’t play that one.” That kind of stuff. When I first got to town, I gave John 17 of my songs, and he was like, “You’ve got one and a half songs here.” And I threw them out. I kept the two he liked, one was called “Missing You” and the other was “DB Cooper.” I added another verse to that. The rest I haven’t heard or played since.
Sara Watkins: John takes the time to go through the details. There’s an attention to the details, with all of his proper nouns. All of his characters have names, and there are so many details: Donald and Lydia, and Sam Stone, and so many, like “The Late John Garfield Blues:” “Windblown scarves in top-down cars all share one western trait.” He’s just painting this beautiful picture, almost like a postcard picture that you turn over quite slowly, and they tell this story. You trust him as a listener. You trust that he’s going to tell you something that’s worth hearing.
Kathy Mattea: What John reminds me of, as a performer, as a singer and as a writer, is that he is so deeply himself. Over the years he goes deeper and deeper into himself, and he doesn’t second-guess himself.
Fiona Prine: John and I both like to listen to music while we drive, so when Jason Isbell first came on the scene with his first solo record, John came home one day, handed me the record, and said, “Hey, get in the car and go take a drive and listen to this.” I was like, “But I’m making dinner.” And he said, “Just do it now, you need to hear this.” That’s how impressed he was with the writing. It was really exciting for John to find someone like Jason, because it had been over 30 years before he had heard that sort of writing.
Kacey Musgraves: When I first moved to Nashville, “John Prine” was one of the first songs I wrote (chorus: “My idea of heaven / Is to burn one with John Prine”). A little bit after I wrote that song John was having his annual Christmas party show at the Station Inn, and I made it down to see the show, watched him, and of course, it was amazing. After, John was standing off to the side of the stage, and I went up to him and was like, “Hi, I’m Kacey Musgraves. Would you like to maybe burn one with me?” And John said, “Well, I don’t really do that anymore.” And then he went, “Hey wait, aren’t you that girl who wrote that song about me?” We had never met, but John just said, “I would, but I don’t do that anymore for medical reasons.”
The next time I saw him was on the Cayamo Cruise, and that was the most “Inception”-type situation I felt like I’d ever been in. It was totally full-circle, and pretty emotional, getting to play that song for him. “John Prine” is kind of a dumb little song, but the meaning there, and the inspiration behind it, is far deeper. I’ve never found a place for it on any of my albums, but I’ve always loved it and hope one day it would have its weird little moment, and then it did when I got to play it for him. My family was there, and my dad was in the audience, and my sister said she saw some tears flowing, because he knew how much it meant to me.
Iris DeMent: Any time I sing with John, I feel like I’m home. He brings that feeling everywhere he goes. John’s one of those singers who’s carried around with him all the people who have inspired his life, musically and otherwise. So, when I sing with John, I feel like I’m in a community. I feel like his mom and dad are there, I feel like every record that’s ever shaped who he became, I feel like that’s all there. He keeps that present with him, and I have that myself, so when I sing with him it feels like a big reunion, in the best way. You know, more than a reunion, it feels like the truth, because that is what’s going on. You’re there with all those people, and we both have that sense that we’re continuing that tradition, and he never loses sight of that. It’s always bigger than him, and he knows that. It isn’t just John, it’s this community that’s kept us all afloat. It’s really powerful, and it matters. I feel that when I’m with him. To me, he’s a physical reminder of that.
Kacey Musgraves: When I first heard John Prine’s music, it completely changed my writing perspective. I really had never heard songs that were so conversational and so simple, but really poignant and not in an overdone, overstated, overly poetic way. It was literally as conversational as you could get. They were really witty and I just really liked the turn of phrase and the simple fingerpicking style that he always did. After that, I tried to rewire how I looked at the songs that I wrote. I’ve always wanted to write whatever made me feel good, not paying attention to any other meter other than that. But hearing his music set the bar way higher for me for what I think is good and for when I think a song is finished, and whether I think a song is conversational enough or not.
I like seeing life, even the depressing parts, with a bit of sarcasm or humor, and John’s brilliant at delivering a one-two punch, making me laugh and then turning around and making me want to cry, but keeping it all very simple and only just describing it the way he sees it. If he’s going to say the bowl of oranges was sitting on the table, he wouldn’t try to make it sound any different than the way it’s appearing. He would just say the orange is sitting on the table, and it would work. So, anytime a line is not really working for me, I try to take a step back and get out of it for a minute and go, “Why isn’t this working here? I wish I could say it like this.” And I’m like wait, I’ll just say it like that, and it always works. I’ll think WWJPD. What would John Prine do?
Fiona Prine: John and I actually had an opportunity to have lunch with Van Morrison several years ago, and that was very interesting. For instance, John’s fans love his music, and they love him. They love his personality and the little pieces that they know about his family life and his goofy little ways. They eat all of that up. Whereas Van Morrison is not necessarily somebody I’d want to have lunch with again. Not that he’s a bad person or that he was rude or anything, but there’s just a big separation between the man and his music, so it was interesting. I think it’s very surprising that John is the man that you see on stage. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for most artists, but it’s true for John. He still loves to perform, and doesn’t take any of it for granted.
That is something that I do find remarkable, even to this day. The irony is that I will lose patience for fans, or be like, “Come on, man. He just played two hours, we’ve got to go back to the hotel.” But John’s always like, “No, no, no. He just waited. I’m going to see them.” And that’s surprising to me, that he hasn’t been jaded. It’s kind of touching. He knows where he’s come from. He knows who the people are who have brought him this far, and he has nothing but the utmost respect for his fans, he really does.
Todd Snider: One time, we went to Europe together for a month, so I just went with John and his band, and that was really fun. When I tell people about what John’s like, it’s a story from that tour. We flew to Europe, it was nine hours, with major hang-ups and delays, very stressful. We get out of the plane, and there’s some guy to pick us up and take us to the first town. When we get on the road to get to the first town, John goes, “Aren’t you supposed to go west?” And the kid was like, “No, it’s this way,” so then John started reading the paper. And then about an hour and a half later the kid goes, “Oh shit,” and all of us were going to kill that kid, or wanted to, but John didn’t even want to. He didn’t even want to. And that’s the guy that wrote “Paradise” at 22. The empathy that John had for that kid driving the car just fucking flooded the car.
Amanda Shires: John is the same person offstage that he is onstage. I know that. He drives himself, and sometimes he’ll cut a doughnut or do some illegal U-turns, but that’s his right.
Jim James: All of my time I’ve spent with John blends together into one beautiful haze, almost like hanging out with your favorite uncle or something. It’s amazing to hang with someone who knows so much more than you, that you can learn so much from, but who still treats you like an equal. That is so rare.
Jason Wilber: When you listen to his songs, you hear a certain line or expression of an idea in a unique way, and you think, “That’s so great. It’s so his style.” But that’s just the way John thinks. That just comes out when he talks. It’s not something he’s contriving or making up. It’s the same thing when you are driving down the road with him and he sees something and says something about it. I’ve noticed that when we’ve both been through the same experience together, and then later I hear him telling someone about it, his version is always more … it’s different. It has that same depth that his songs have. And I think that’s the way he sees the world. And because he sees the world like that, his songs come out the way they do. They’re very unique, and kind of quirky, and that’s just the world according to John Prine.
Iris DeMent: It’s rare to see John got angry. I’ve seen him angry a time or two but if things go wrong with John, somehow you come away thinking that the wrong thing was the right thing. You get lost, or you’re an hour off your path, you’re going to miss soundcheck, somehow it’s fun or funny with John. There’s no anxiety. He just has a way of accepting it for what it is. He has a lot of joy about him, in who he is and his view of the world. Who doesn’t want to be around that? And it’s sincere. It’s not this syrupy, weird thing. He’s entertained by life, he’s curious about it, and he appreciates all of life’s little strange twists and turns, and being around him reminds me to try to do that. It’s rubbed off on me.
Todd Snider: John never gets mad. I’ve heard about him getting mad one time, that’s it, and I still don’t know it was about. Somebody just told me he got mad once. All I know is that it allegedly happened. And I don’t believe it! In fact, I know that John was making jokes in the office the day they told him he had cancer. That’s John. He was comforting Al Bunetta (John’s late manager) that day. Al told me that he didn’t know how he could have gotten through that day without John.
Fiona Prine: I tell lots of people that John does not take any of his illnesses personally. I’ve never seen him going, “Oh, why me? I should have done this differently.” No. It’s, “What do I need to do here so that I can walk through this and get past it.” When he was diagnosed with neck cancer all those years ago, they laid out a pretty strong program of treatment that would involve his vocal chords. John’s reply was, “You know what, you do what you do, and I’ll take care of the singing.” One doctor, he was very concerned, he said, “I know you’re a singer, John,” and John goes, “Well, evidently, you haven’t heard me sing, doctor.” John wants to live. He wants to live.
Amanda Shires: John is a constant listener. He listens more than he talks, really. He listens and he hears, and I feel like he’s an excellent judge of character. All the time, he’s really listening and paying attention and noticing the details of the way of the world and how communication with people works. If you go up to him and say, “I like your song,” a lot of times he’ll remember where he met you and where you’re from, stuff like that. A fan once told me that he met John once in the ’80s and then met him again in the ’90s, and John was like, “Oh yeah, I remember meeting you.” And John’s family is everything to him. I’ve seen his stage setup when I’ve sound-checked and he keeps pictures of his family on his table.
Fiona Prine: Gosh, he makes me smile. There’s so much about him that’s kind of childlike, in what makes him happy. My mother has a birthday every July 5th, and, so obviously, I like to give my mother everything I can give her, and I enjoy giving her gifts, but John always likes to get his own gifts for my mother. And when John buys gifts, it doesn’t matter whether the gift is five cents or $5,000, if he sees something that is just perfect for my mother, he’ll always get it. It’s the same thing for me. It’s about a personal connection. He’ll get something, and the person receiving the gift will go, “Oh, my god. He knows me. He really knows me.” I’ve seen him do that over and over again. And like I said, it doesn’t matter what it costs, it’s whether the gift reflects what he knows to be true about the person he loves. To me, that just says everything about him, his generosity of heart and spirit.
When John went to buy my engagement ring all of those years ago, he visited a jeweler in Nashville. And if you don’t know John, if you don’t know his music or know him as a well known person, you just look at a guy with his hair standing at the top of his head with grubby jeans and a black T-shirt. I mean, that’s what you’re seeing. So, evidently, that’s what this particular jeweler saw. And John is so shy, so when this jeweler asked John, “What can I do for you?” John just mumbled something, because again, he was looking for that very ring that was going to be the ring for me. And so John “hmmm’ed” and “haaa’ed” at this jeweler, whatever he does, and the jeweler said, “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t believe we’ll have what you’re looking for. Thank you,” and then showed John the door. Now, that hurt. That really hurt me when I heard that. But John just moves on through that. That’s who he is. He’s Johnny, as his mom called him. Johnny. John Prine is one guy, but Johnny is somebody else. And he really, really loves the people that he loves. It’s just amazing to me. He has a heart of gold.
Iris Dement: John just makes you happy. He makes people feel good. There are a lot of people who have accomplished a lot in life who people put on pedestals, and they walk around in that safe, little, pedastal-ed zone. John’s not like that. When you’re walking around with John, he puts you on a pedestal. And it’s a sincere thing. And I’ll get choked up saying that because it’s just true. Because he’s just got a loving heart. He likes people, and he likes to see people do well, and he likes to see the light shine on them, and for them to be seen at their best. When you’re with John, whether you’re eating dinner with John or whether you’re on stage with John, you just feel that he wants to see your boat float.