Legendary musician John Prine an enduring figure

September 13, 2017

After 46 years, John Prine has seen a lot from his music career. There have been some two dozen albums released, hundreds of songs written, thousands of shows performed, three Grammy Award acceptance speeches, a few Americana Music trophies placed on his shelf, an Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony and a countless number of fans met over the hundreds of thousands of miles he’s traveled to be with them.

It’s a measure of Prine’s talent for connecting with people through music, as well as his commitment to the kind of songwriting that can say something larger than the words and notes themselves. The former has made him beloved by millions, and perhaps it’s the latter that has made him such an enduring figure in the vast ocean of musicians and songwriters for nearly five decades.

Prine’s songwriting has always been reflective and observational, his lyrics filled with as much wisdom as humor. He’s an everyday-man singer-songwriter and poet in that way. His songs tell the stories of people living in hard times in hard places. He speaks plainly of simple people in complicated times, while leaving a subtle message to the stories that often go as deep as one is willing to dig.

His voice has long echoed the moans of a hard day’s labor, the pains of lost love and economic frustration, yet Prine has always managed to remind listeners of such struggles with a rare, understated wit and playfulness. That sense of hope and comedic irony serve to relieve the sting of sorrow and yearning as quickly as they form, sending listeners past the doubts and apprehensions of everyday life and planting Prine’s melodic dramedies into the hearts of fans both new and old.

He was born in a small suburb just outside of Chicago in 1946, where, as a young teenager, his older brother taught him to play guitar. After high school, Prine joined the Army and served his time stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. When he was discharged in the late 1960s, Prine returned to Chicago and took a job with the Postal Service, all the while attending open mics around the city.

He was always a spectator, too shy to perform himself, until a performer challenged him one evening, asking the scrappy young man if he could do better. Prine accepted the challenge, and performed his first set the same night that up-and-coming newspaper critic Roger Ebert happened to be in attendance. Ebert wrote what was to be Prine’s first music review, calling the reluctant performer a “great songwriter.”

Encouraged by the praise, Prine began performing regularly at area clubs, and within a year was recognized as one of the leading figures in Chicago’s folk revival scene. By the turn of the decade, Prine had gained the attention of folk and country stars like Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and David Allan Coe, all of whom wanted to work with the budding songwriter.

Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut album would feature some of his most popular songs, including “Illegal Smile,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone” and “Paradise.” The album catapulted Prine into the company of his generation’s best songwriters.

By 1979, on Prine’s fifth studio album, “Pink Cadillac,” famed music producer Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records (Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.), came out of semi-retirement to produce two songs, “Saigon” and “How Lucky.”

Prine has spent the decades since recording and touring nearly nonstop, receiving widespread critical praise for nearly every album he’s released. Acclaimed songwriters across multiple generations, such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Roger Waters, Jason Isbell, Jim James, Justin Vernon and Margo Price, have all expressed their admiration for Prine and the influence his songwriting has had on their own music. Prine and Tom Waits, along with Waits’s wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, shared last year’s PEN/Song Lyrics Award, which is awarded every other year to songwriters for exceptional lyricism. Last year’s decision was made by singer-songwriters Peter Wolf, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and that year’s literary judge Salman Rushdie.

John Prine will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum Drive in support of his latest album, last year’s “For Better, or Worse.”

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys will serve as the show’s opening act. Tickets start at $60.50 (plus fees) and are available online at www.Ticketmaster.com, at the North Charleston Coliseum Advance Ticket Office, Ticketmaster outlets at select Publix grocery stores or by phone at 1-800-745-3000. There is a $10 (cash only) parking fee.

Call 843-529-5000 or go to www.NorthCharlestonColiseumPAC.com for more information.