July 14, 2020

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Prime Prine

Celebrate the late singer-songwriter with 10 tracks from his vast catalogue

Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File</p><p>John Prine performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Prine died Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus. He was 73.</p></p>

Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File

John Prine performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Prine died Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus. He was 73.

John Prine would have written a great song about COVID-19.

Over the course of his 50-year career, he proved could write about anything. Sad or happy, pointed or playful. Prine has a song filled with similies he came up while helping his mother do crossword puzzles. Another mentions the sad demotion of Pluto in our solar system. He could also write about Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD that in a single line sums up the tragic experience finer than a dozen movies.

Prine, who died Tuesday night in Nashville from complications caused by COVID-19, performed in Winnipeg several times, including twice at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. A third date was set for the 2020 edition, but the anticipation of seeing the 73-year-old and hear him sing his favourites again has been supplanted by sadness, fond remembrances of concerts past and yet another heartwarming trip through Prine’s vast catalogue of songs.

Here are 10 worth listening to, or if you’re one of Prine’s fans, listen to once again. For one last look, check out one of his final TV appearances, the Oct. 13, 2018, edition of PBS’s Austin City Limits.

Sam Stone (1971) — Has anyone had a more powerful line to launch a recording career? "There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes."



Angel From Montgomery (1971) — The first line, "I am an old woman," worked when Bonnie Raitt had a hit with this one, but Prine wrote and sang it first, incongruously, using the same opening words. It’s what he did best — telling someone else’s story and making it his own.



Crazy as a Loon (2005) — Prine offers a warning for those looking to make their mark in the big city. Los Angeles, Nashville and New York each get a verse and all will do their worst to make you dash to the lakeshore.



It’s a Big Old Goofy World (1991) — Plenty of classic Prine wit in this mash-up of similes and clichés. "You oughta see his wife / she’s a cute little dish / she smokes like a chimney / and drinks like a fish."



Knockin’ on Your Screen Door (2018) — This nostalgic tune about better times fits our present predicament. "I ain’t got nobody hangin’ ’round my doorstep / Ain’t got no loose change just a-hangin’ ’round my jeans."



Christmas in Prison (1973) — The Christmas song not likely to be played during the holidays. "It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good / We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood."



Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow) (1978) — Prine was ahead of his time, creating his own recording company, Oh Boy Records, in 1978. The tune, the title track to that first record on his own warns against anger and how it’s a waste of energy.



Down by the Side of the Road (1979) — The album Pink Cadillac was Prine’s departure into rock and is an outlier compared to the rest of his folk records. The down-on-her-luck tale still works among the electric guitars and backup singers, though.



Paradise (1971) — Mentioning only three songs from Prine’s fantastic debut record is a shame, because there’s a career of songs on this record alone. This one became a sing-a-long at concerts; it immortalizes the lost beauty of Muhlenberg County, Ky., and how "Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away."



When I Get to Heaven (2018) — This is the final song from his excellent last album, The Tree of Forgiveness. Enjoy this epitaph with a vodka and ginger ale and imagine John Prine meeting God in the afterlife.




Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

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