So maybe Merle Haggard didn’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee or take trips on LSD, but that certainly didn’t stop country’s greats from trading a shot of Tennessee brown for a toke of Colorado green — and singing about it, too. But...
John Prine is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter who has gone from solo acoustic folk to hard country to rockabilly to soft rock, all the while maintaining his hardheaded vision of white proletarian America.
Prine learned guitar from his father and played the Chicago coffeehouse circuit while working at the post office. With his friend and sometime production cohort Steve Goodman, Prine graduated from the Chicago folk scene. Paul Anka liked some of Prine's Hank Williams–influenced songs and was instrumental in landing him a recording contract. In 1971 Prine went to Memphis and cut his debut. That LP's most notable song may have been "Sam Stone," a bleak portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran, which aptly demonstrated Prine's laconic, drawling delivery.
Though his own commercial success was meager, other artists began recording his songs: the Everly Brothers did "Paradise," and both Joan Baez and Bette Midler recorded "Hello in There." Common Sense saw Prine shocking his folk audience by using hard-rock rhythms and a guttural singing style. Bruised Orange, produced by Goodman, returned Prine to the acoustic format of Diamonds in the Rough, while Pink Cadillac was an electric rockabilly album produced by Sam Phillips and his son Knox at Sun Studios.
Prine formed his own label, Oh Boy Records, in 1983. His second album for the label, the countryish German Afternoons, earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. After releasing his first live album in 1988, Prine won the Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for The Missing Years, which was produced by Howie Epstein of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, and had guest appearances by Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Bonnie Raitt (who had been singing Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" in concert for years).
After starting to record In Spite of Ourselves in 1997, he discovered a cancerous growth on his neck. In 1998 George Strait got a #1 C&W hit with one of Prine's compositions, "I Just Want to Dance With You"; the ensuing financial windfall helped Prine pay his medical bills. He beat the cancer and, after an interruption of nearly two years, resumed work on the album. In a premiere for Prine, In Spite of Ourselves (#21 C&W, 1999) was made up of covers (save for the title song) and each track was a duet with a different female singer —guests included Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless, and Melba Montgomery. In 2000 Prine covered himself with Souvenirs, on which he offered new studio recordings of some of his classic material.
Prine made his movie acting debut with a small role in John Mellencamp's 1992 Falling From Grace, then appeared in Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them. He retains a cult following for his down-to-earth, unadorned insights.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).