The death of John Prine at age 73 due to complications from the coronavirus was a hard blow for fellow songwriters everywhere — including Austin, where his legacy runs deep, especially among Americana artists.
"John was one of the sweetest and funniest guys I ever met, and also one of the greatest songwriters ever. It’s a very sad day," said Ray Benson, leader of western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. (Benson recently recovered from his own bout with coronavirus.)
"Prine was such an incredible wordsmith," said Shelley King, the 2008 official Texas State Musician. "Poignant and lighthearted at the same time, he could distill all of the craziness down to one simple line that would blow your mind."
Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson initially met Prine early in her career. "The first time I opened for him as an unknown folkie in the late ’70s, he and his band actually watched my show and came backstage after I finished my set, stood around me with their guitars and serenaded me with a love song about some girl whose name I can’t quite recall," she said. "It was for me a lasting symbol of everything sweet and generous-hearted about the man."
Prine’s most recent Austin appearances were in June 2018. In addition to taping an episode of "Austin City Limits" that’s now available to watch in full on the program’s website, he performed at Bass Concert Hall and did an interview with KUTX’s Elizabeth McQueen at Waterloo Records.
RELATED: Review of John Prine at Bass Concert Hall in 2018
An excerpt from our review of the "ACL" taping: "Prine seemed like an old soul even when he was a young man writing songs destined to be classics such as ’Hello in There’ and ’Angel From Montgomery,’ the latter of which he played early in Tuesday’s show to set up the new material. It’s no surprise, then, that his writing has been so strong in his later years. Most legacy artists would be pushing it to play a set so dominated by their newest material, but Prine can pull it off because what he’s doing now is as good as, maybe better than, anything he’s ever done."
Austin singer-songwriter and Recording Academy chair emeritus Christine Albert was at this year’s Grammy Awards in late January when Prine received a lifetime achievement honor, with Bonnie Raitt singing part of "Angel From Montgomery" on the prime-time telecast. "It was so emotional for those of us who have been involved in Americana and singer-songwriter music for decades," Albert said.
Many Austin musicians took to social media to share what Prine’s music meant to them. Some examples:
• Ruthie Foster, who’s sung "Angel From Montgomery" with Bonnie Raitt onstage: "I was introduced to John Prine’s songs while on Navy leave in a small club in Charleston, South Carolina, many years ago. Songs like ‘Dear Abby’ and ‘Sam Stone’ drew me in as a fan of great lyrics. But ‘Hello in There’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery’ stole my heart and became my favorites. John Prine not only inspired me to be a songwriter but to want to be a better songwriter. I’m still working on that."
• Jon Dee Graham: "Late ’70s, Jester Dorm at UT, my new friend Dennis Nowlin sat me down to play me a record I’d never heard. Once I heard ‘Sam Stone’ I knew I would never write a song quite that good."
• Rosie Flores: "The greatest songwriter I’ve ever known. He was a mentor to me in my early days and made me his opening act for the better part of a year."
• Harvest Thieves’ Cory Reinisch, who works at Waterloo Records, remembered first hearing a Prine song while shopping at a Lubbock record store in the mid-1990s: "I was half paying attention to the music playing in the store when I heard the lyric, ‘Where the air smelled like snakes we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.’ I immediately went and asked the fella working the counter what it was that I just heard." (That’s from Prine’s song "Paradise.")
• Raina Rose: "‘Paradise’ was one of the first songs I learned how to play. Then ‘Angel From Montgomery.’ My dad used to take me on long camping trips every summer, and the drives served the double purpose of getting to national parks and music education time. My dad told me that John Prine could get so much across with only three or four chords. The most powerful song is often the most simple. All our heroes are mortal, and if they weren't, they wouldn't be our heroes."
• Willy Braun of Reckless Kelly: "John Prine was the songwriter’s songwriter. He was a giant amongst men. These shoes will not be filled. Ever."
• Corey Baum of Croy & the Boys: "John Prine was my source of confidence whenever I questioned whether or not a Midwestern boy had any business coming down south to play country music."
• James McMurtry: "More than once, I saw Prine get so tickled with himself he couldn’t keep his teeth in his mouth, the grin would overtake him, but he’d keep talking anyway. I remember him pointing at the TV screen one night in the early ’90s. The news was showing clips of the crowd at a folk festival that had taken place that afternoon and the people looked like they were trying to re-create Woodstock, headbands, tie-dye, the usual. Prine said, ‘Look at them out there trying to be hippies. There’s not a cavity in that whole crowd. I never met a hippie chick didn’t have a mouth full of rotten teeth.’ John Prine was a realist."
• Betty Soo of Nobody’s Girl: "Rest gentle, John. You were more human than humans and also a little bit not human — some kind of bridging creature both between man and angels and man and the devils. You seemed — or at least wrote — as if you were utterly unafraid of both the funniest and most tragic sides of humanity. Your writing showed no fear of what anyone might think of you … and in utterly new ways, and you left us shocked to realize no one had phrased those observations the way you managed to. Every great writer revels in and craves to achieve that; you were the king."
• Author and filmmaker Tamara Saviano, who lives part time in Austin and Nashville: "Eighteen years ago I was very publicly fired from a television job, and the people who fired me tried to ruin my good reputation. But they didn’t count on John Prine and Al Bunetta, who had my back immediately. They helped me start my own company with Oh Boy Records, Prine and Kris Kristofferson as my first clients. That should tell you all you need to know about John."
• Suzanna Choffel recounted what her family did Tuesday evening after learning of Prine’s passing: "Tonight Paul Oveisi made me a fire and I made s’mores for Lulu while listening to John Prine under the supermoon. After each song started Lulu would ask me, ‘Mama, what’s this song about?’ My answers: True love that lasts forever (‘like you and Daddy?’); going fishing and whistling and telling someone it’s okay; a woman who wishes she could have a different life (’Like, live in a different land?’ and I said, ‘Yes, as long as it’s not Montgomery’); a blue umbrella; loving someone even though they are so silly and different than you. Oh, to hear John Prine through the ears of a child."
• Finally, the late Daniel Johnston’s lifelong friend David Thornberry had the following observations about Johnston’s interest in Prine’s songs: "Dan Johnston and I and Brett and Jim Scafide spent many hours listening to and learning from John Prine back in the early ’80s. If you don’t hear Prine’s influence on Daniel Johnston’s songwriting, take another listen to both. I surely do hope they have a chance to meet up, wherever they both are now."