John Prine: 25 Essential Songs
John Prine wrote his first two songs, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan,” when he was 14. Even at that young age, Prine could channel humor and heartbreak just like his heroes Hank Williams and Roger Miller. As he served in the Vietnam War and joined the post office as a mailman, Prine kept writing songs about his life: “Hello in There,” about the loneliness of an old empty-nest couple, the kind he encountered on his mail route, and “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted veteran who never really came home from the war, were just two examples. Prine wrote for working people, sad people, old people, and lost people. His style, inspired by John Steinbeck, was deceptively simple. Many emulated it, but only he could do it.
Prine, modest about his talent, didn’t give a lot of interviews. But his conversation with Paul Zollo for Bluerailroad is a master class in songwriting. “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks,” Prine told Zollo. “Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you just draw the foundation. I still tend to believe that’s the way to tackle it today.”
There’s really no such thing as a bad Prine song. Here are 25 of the best.
“Angel From Montgomery” (1971)
Prine’s most widely known song is an indelible portrait of “a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is.” The song’s stripped-down country-rock arrangement belied the intricacy of Prine’s lyrics, which home in on details like the flies buzzing around the kitchen sink and the rodeo poster that sends her into a reverie of youthful recollection, and its matter-of-fact description of marital stasis and midlife depression were groundbreakingly real. “Angel From Montgomery” became a country standard, covered most famously by Bonnie Raitt, whose slow, soulful version highlighted the song’s theme of emulsified female desire. She performed it movingly earlier this year at the Grammys, when Prine received a Lifetime Achievement Award. J.D.
“Illegal Smile” (1971)
The opening track to Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut, “Illegal Smile” became an anthem for weed-smokers — despite the songwriter claiming it wasn’t really about that. Lyrics about having “the key to escape reality” and paranoid run-ins with the law might suggest otherwise, but it’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery that makes the song so inebriating. He phrases it like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.” The imagery is trippy throughout, but it’s Prine’s ad-libbed rhymes at the song’s end that double down on the childlike wonder: “Well done/Hot dog bun/My sister’s a nun.” Such fun. J.H.
“Spanish Pipedream” (1971)
There’s a lot of advice in Prine’s tale about a soldier and a topless dancer who run off together to live the good life. For starters: blow up your TV, throw away your paper, go to the country, build you a home. It all sounds especially enticing today, if increasingly hard to manifest — it’s a pipe dream after all, as Rolling Stone pointed out in its 1971 review of Prine’s debut album. Prine himself never went as far as blowing up his own TV, but he did mount an attack on his own boob tube, telling Performing Songwriter, “I used to keep a small bowl of real fine pebbles that I picked up on my mail route, and if somebody said something really stupid on T.V. I’d throw some at the screen.” J.H.
A sentimental recollection of home that’s also an unsparing description of predatory capitalist devastation, “Paradise” is Prine’s ode to the tiny mining town in Western Kentucky where his parents met. “Peabody Coal and Mining bought up all the land down there, and they tore the whole town down; they strip-mined it,” Prine said, introducing the song during the 1970 performance that would be released in 2011 as part of The Singing Mailman Delivers. It became a beloved standard – recorded by the Everly Brothers, John Denver and Johnny Cash – much to Prine’s surprise. “I wasn’t even going to record it because I didn’t think anybody would be able to pronounce ‘Muhlenberg,’ ” he said. J.D.
“Sam Stone” (1971)
Prine wrote this heartbreaking tale of a heroin-addicted veteran for his first album, not long after he returned home from serving in the Army himself. “Sam Stone” immediately became one of the songwriter’s most signature tunes, filled with shattering one-liners like, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Chris died for nothin’, I suppose.” Forty-seven years later, Prine told this magazine that that couplet was the one he was most proud of in his entire career. “A lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs,” he said. “I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to, ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’” J.B.
“Hello in There” (1971)
Inspired by John Lennon’s reverb-heavy vocal on the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” Prine thought about “hollering through a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody.” He spun that notion of trying to connect across a vast divide into a uniquely empathic song that inhabited the life of an elderly couple — from the apartment they shared when they were younger, to the kids who’ve grown up and left (or, in the case of Davy, died “in the Korean War/I still don’t know what for”), and the quiet, isolated existence they now soldier through. In classic folk tradition, Prine ends by addressing the listener, asking that we reach out too: “So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes/Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare/ As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ” J.D.
Prine wrote this gorgeous meditation on nostalgia in his ‘65 Chevelle, on the way to one of his earliest gigs at the Fifth Peg in Chicago. In part, it’s about a buried childhood memory of thinking his brother had gotten lost at a carnival. “I thought I had come up with a pretty sophisticated melody in my head,” he said. “I was surprised to find out it had the same three chords that all my other songs have.” Prine frequently performed the song with his musical partner Steve Goodman (the definitive version is their live duet on Prine’s Great Days anthology), and for decades he dedicated the song to his late friend each time he played in. The two-verse tale of someone haunted by their lifetime of memories is Prine at his sentimental best, and he even invented a new word along the way: “Memories, they can’t be boughten.” J.B.
“Christmas in Prison” (1973)
Leave it to Prine to write a deeply unconventional Christmas song and a deeply unconventional love song, all at once. “Christmas in Prison” is apparently about a homesick inmate pining for his lover, though Prine indicated the incarcerated subject may not be in a literal cell: “It’s about a person being somewhere like a prison, in a situation they don’t want to be in,” he said. “And wishing they were somewhere else. But I used all the imagery as if it were an actual prison.”
The tune is a sweet, sentimental waltz; the lyrics manage to be both funny and wildly evocative. The inmate aches for his beloved while piling up striking images like notches on a cell wall: “She reminds me of a chess game/With someone I admire/Or a picnic in the rain/After a prairie fire.” As for the holiday setting, Prine loved the season: As a bachelor, he kept a Christmas tree up in his house all year round. C.H.
“Mexican Home” (1973)
Prine’s father Bill was a factory worker and union president who introduced his son to country music. The younger Prine says he always wrote with hopes of impressing his father, which he finally did on “Paradise,” about his parents’ Kentucky home. But Bill Prine didn’t live to see his son’s success; just before Prine’s first album came out on Atlantic Records, he died of a heart attack on the front porch in Maywood, Illinois. John had been with him earlier that day.
Just like he did with every trauma in his life, John wrote about it. Over several verses he evokes the helplessness, anxiety and pain he was feeling: “The cuckoo clock has died of shock and the windows feel no pane,” Prine sings, “The air’s as still as the throttle of a funeral train.”
After an ominous series of observations, only in the last verse does Prine tell us who the song is about: “My father died on the porch outside on an August afternoon/ I sipped bourbon and cried / With a friend by the light of the moon.” P.D.
“Blue Umbrella” (1973)
Prine wrote this young man’s blues about an early breakup, the same one that inspired his debut album masterpiece “Far From Me.” “The first time you get your heart busted, you never forgive,” he said years later. “Especially if you’re a writer.” The song was part of Prine’s earliest repertoire in Chicago folk circuit, but he hung onto it for a while, making it a downcast highlight of his third album, 1973’s Sweet Revenge. In this two-verse torch song, young heartbreak is recast as a torrential storm, and Prine is left with only a sad umbrella to “hide the pain while the rain makes up [his] mind.” But “Blue Umbrella” will always be remembered for its chorus, with its unforgettable depiction of feeling young, lost, and alone: “Just give me one extra season,” Prine begs. “So I can figure out the other four.” J.B.
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” (1978)
This dark surrealist tale is based on Prine’s real-life traumatic childhood memory of witnessing the aftermath of a local altar boy who was killed by an Illinois commuter train. Prine juxtaposed the violent tale, which both opens and closes the song, with an unusually anthemic chorus (inspired by Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) about fighting against our worst tendencies and a seemingly unrelated second verse about kissing a black-haired girl on a park bench. “My head shouted down to my heart, ‘You better look out below,’” he sang. “When I’m writing, I’m never sure if it’s really facts I’m getting or if I’m making it up,” the songwriter said in 2017. “There’s no line.” Years after Prine released the song, the parents of the altar boy sent Prine a letter thanking him for it. J.B.
“Fish and Whistle” (1978)
On this upbeat stomper off Bruised Orange, his excellent, undersung third album, Prine combines snapshots from various different chapters of his life – from his first job working at a local drive-in to his army days – and strings them together with a chorus about the importance of forgiveness. The song is full of hilarious observations pulled straight from real life. “On my very first job I said ‘thank-you’ and ‘please’/They made me scrub a parking lot down on my knees/Then I got fired for being scared of bees/And they only give me fifty cents an hour.” Prine admitted after writing the song that he indeed was terrified of bees. P.D.
“It’s Happening to You” (1980)
Not a literary masterpiece, just a compact, easygoing tune that seems to effortlessly sum up the life cycle of a relationship from first kiss to last goodbye with a perfect mix of matter-of-fact honesty and genuine wonder at the cheesy depth of the ritual. “You know what they say/They pledge their love forever/Then they add a day,” he sings, proudly adding his own two cents to one of pop music’s richest songwriting traditions. Rachel Peer’s subtle harmony vocals give the song an extra shading of bittersweet beauty. J.D.
“Unwed Fathers” (1984)
Prine wrote this tale of the double standards facing a single pregnant mother with legendary Nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock in the early eighties. “I wrote down 15 titles, including one called ‘Children Having Children’ and ‘Unwed Fathers’” Prine later said. “I was reading the list off to him, and all the lights went on with those two. We kind of combined them and went right into it.” The song, later recorded by Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash, was the highlight of his 1984 album Aimless Love, where Prine sang it as a duet with then-wife Rachel Peer. In later years,it became a duet standard for Prine, who would perform it with friends like Margo Price, Iris DeMent and Amanda Shires. J.B.
“Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” (1986)
Written on the patio of a Nashville hotel and released on Prine’s 1986 album German Afternoons, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” is at once one of the greatest vacation songs and one of the greatest sex songs ever written — pure playful fun stuffed with wonderful, hilarious wordplay. “It’s a ukulele Honolulu sunset.” Prine sings against inviting geographically appropriate accompaniment, “Listen to the grass skirts sway/Drinking rum from a pineapple/Out on Honolulu Bay/The steel guitars all playing/ While she’s talking with her hands/ Gimme gimme oka doka make a wish and wanta polka/Words I understand, hey!” He described it as “the kind of song that keeps you out of the shrink.” J.D.
“Speed at the Sound of Loneliness” (1986)
Written in the aftermath of a bad relationship, this 1986 ballad is John Prine at his most romantically destitute. “It was a song about a break up,” he said in 2016. “I had a picture in my mind of one of the astronauts of the 1950s with his face all contorted by G-force. I was thinking of somebody’s heart being pulled apart by G-force like that.” Just as “Angel From Montgomery” became best known from Bonnie Raitt’s rendition, “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” belonged to Nanci Griffith, who included a duet of the song with Prine on her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms. But the simple three-chord devastation in this tale of two lovers who’ve grown far, far apart was pure Prine, resulting in perhaps the most heartbreaking line in his songbook: “You come home straight/And you come curly,” he sang. “Sometimes you don’t come home at all.” J.B.
“The Sins of Memphisto” (1991)
Written at the last minute as he wrapped up work on his 1991 LP, The Missing Years, “Sins of Memphisto” is a lovely, laidback literary tour-de-force full of classic rhymes (“Sally used to play with here Hula Hoops/ Now she tells her problems to therapy groups”), absurdist imagery and careful everyday observation, spun into a beautiful meditation on love and aging, youthful freedom and lost innocence. The song’s cast of characters include Adam and Eve, Lucile Ball and Ricky Ricardo, Esmeralda and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a kid riding his bike around a town he can’t wait to escape and a Grandpa “on the front lawn staring at a rake/Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake.” It’s all delivered with the a tender late-afternoon prettiness that makes its uncomfortable realizations about life go down like a sip of Orange Crush. J.D.
“All the Best” (1991)
Leave it to John Prine to turn an account of his divorce from second wife Rachel Peer into one of his most big-hearted moments, the tale of a broken heart healing itself through compassion. The song culminates in Prine’s most devastating distillation of what happens when two people grow apart: “Your heart gets bored with your mind/And it changes you.” “All the Best” anchored Prine’s 1991 comeback triumph The Missing Years, the album’s purest distillation of lost love and blossoming romance with his to-be third wife Fiona. “Having recently acquired my second divorce,” Prine said before introducing “All the Best” in 1990, “about a month later the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.” In other words, he had “so much love that he cannot hide.” J.B.
“Jesus the Missing Years” (1991)
In the Bible, there’s an 18-year gap in Jesus’ life, age 12 to 29, that’s unaccounted for. Prine decided to fill those gaps with a surreal, seven-minute, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott–style ballad. So what was Jesus up to during that time? He traveled to France and Spain, he got into some trouble with the cops, he grew his hair out, saw Rebel Without a Cause, and invented Santa Claus. Also: “He discovered the Beatles, recorded with the Stones, and once even opened up a three-way package in Southern California for old George Jones.” Jesus also meets an Irish bride, just like Prine did in the late Eighties when he met his wife Fiona in Dublin. That sequence of events ends abruptly when Jesus realizes he’s “a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me Mama, they don’t like me bud.” This is why he was one of Dylan’s favorite songwriters; it’s a staggeringly beautiful piece of poetry that should be studied generations from now. P.D.
“Lake Marie” (1995)
“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Bob Dylan once said. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.” Dylan’s favorite Prine song is a genius example of the latter. “Lake Marie” combines three different stories — one about how two lakes on the Illinois-Wisconsin border got their names, one about a failing marriage, and one about a gruesome murder — into a classic that’s part modern folk tale, part chugging, big-chorused singalong. Prine wrote about the lakes — which are real, although it’s actually Lake Mary, not “Marie” — after consulting a local historian; the murders were inspired by grisly TV footage he remembered from his childhood. Somehow, it all comes together, light mixing with dark, shadows forming alongside the “peaceful waters” he keeps coming back to. In the middle of it all, he gets off an extremely Prine laugh line: “Many years later we found ourselves in Canada/Trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish … whatever came first.” C.H.
“In Spite of Ourselves” (1999)
Sung with Iris Dement, this he-said, she-said duet is a portrait of a long-term relationship as only Prine could write it: warm, richly detailed, and funny as hell. He talks about how she hates runny eggs, disdains money and thinks his jokes are “corny” (which he rhymes with “convict movies make her horny”); she calls out his beer-drinking and recalls that time she caught him “sniffin’ my undies.” They may not agree on much, but this is a couple that knows each other’s quirks inside and out and loves one another to the moon and back anyway. Prine wrote “In Spite of Ourselves” for Daddy and Them, a film in which he and Billy Bob Thornton played brothers. It was based, Prine said, “real loosely” on two of the movie’s characters. But its theme of warts-and-all love is universal — and a big reason it’s become a popular wedding song in recent years. C.H.
“Some Humans Ain’t Human” (2005)
As a songwriter who radiated kindness, generosity and humanity, Prine brings a unique sense of dispirited unbelief to this brokenhearted yet mordantly funny takedown of Republican ideology in the Bush years, released at the height of the Iraq War. “You open their hearts and here’s what you’ll find,” he sings over a spare gentle melody. “A few frozen pizzas/Some ice cubes with hair/A broken Popsicle/You don’t want to go there.” As political jeremiads go, it’s still pretty lovely, the work of an artist who could add beauty to the world even when he was singing about its ugliest people. “During Vietnam, when you saw people on the street, you knew which side they were on,” Prine said. “But you don’t know anymore. It just got to the point where if you weren’t saying anything then people were taking it that you supported him, so I thought ‘Jeez, if I get hit by a bus I would sure like the world to know that I was not a Republican.'” J.D.
“Long Monday” (2005)
Prine’s voice was full of nostalgia and melancholy on Fair & Square, his first album after beating stage-four cancer. One of the standouts is this gorgeous ballad, written with Keith Sykes, where Prine looks back on the good times of a relationship while hinting that darkness is around the corner. “Radio’s on/Windows rolled up/And my mind’s rolled down,” Prine sings. The lyrics address a lover about to leave him alone at home for the week. But Prine was a traveling musician who didn’t like being away from his family; there’s a chance he was singing about himself. P.D.
“Summer’s End” (2018)
This ode to late-in-life companionship was the emotional centerpiece of Prine’s 2018 triumph The Tree of Forgiveness. Prine opens the song with the image of swimsuits drying on a clothesline, before spinning the idea of a summer coming to a close into a metaphor for fast-approaching mortality. “Well, I don’t know, but I can see it’s snowing,” Prine sings, drawing out the last word until it becomes clear what he means. “There’s a natural sadness with that song because I do think about me and John,” his wife Fiona said in 2018. “I think, ‘OK, we have had two seasons together, and we are going into the third season.’” If Prine became famous for writing songs that could make listeners laugh at one line and cry at the next, “Summer’s End” was pure tears, with Brandi Carlile’s ghostly harmony bringing home the yearning for peace in the song’s stark “come on home” chorus. As Prine puts it in the song’s choked-up climax, “Summer’s end came faster than we wanted.” J.B.
“When I Get to Heaven” (2018)
Prine couldn’t have written a better epitaph than this, the final song on his final album. In spoken-word verses influenced by Hank Williams’ alter-ego Luke the Drifter, Prine lays out what he will do when he reaches the pearly gates: “When I get to heaven/I’m gonna shake God’s hand/Thank him for more blessings/Than one man can stand,” Prine sings, before laying out all he’s been grateful for: his parents, who encouraged his musical career, his departed aunts and brother Doug, and even his critics (“those syphilitic parasitics,” he says). Prine pledges to open up a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness in the afterlife. Over a joyous kazoo-filled chorus, he sings about making a handsome Johnny (his famous favorite drink: vodka and ginger ale) and “smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.” Prine had found rich subject matter in mortality for as long as he’d been recording. When he sang about his own, it was full of just as much dark humor and lyrical precision: “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm,” he sang. “What are you gonna do with time/After you’ve bought the farm?” P.D.