Skip to main content

John Prine, songwriting icon, dies aged 73 from coronavirus complications

John Prine performs onstage during the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 12, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
John Prine performs onstage during the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 12, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee (Image credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images for Americana Music Association)

John Prine, the highly respected folk and country songwriter, has died aged 73 following coronavirus complications.

Prine was hospitalized on 26 March, and died on Tuesday April 7 2020, following 13 days of intensive care at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Music icons have been paying tribute since the news broke, with Bruce Springsteen hailing Prine as “a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages”.

Prine was born and raised just outside Chicago, where he practiced guitar and songwriting while working as a mail carrier. His switch to music came about at a Chicago open mic night, where he was overheard complaining about the low standard of talent onstage and was challenged to do better. His three-song set wowed the crowd, secured him a $1,000-a-weekend residency, and set him on the path to stardom.

Kris Kristofferson saw one of Prine’s early Chicago gigs, and invited him to perform in front of record-label staff in New York. He was signed to Atlantic Records the following day.

His debut landed in 1971, and was followed by 18 more studio records, which earned him considerable acclaim from some of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, including Johnny Cash, Roger Waters and Bob Dylan, who once said, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

Prine had survived two bouts of cancer: in 1998, he had part of his neck removed due to squamous cell cancer, while part of his left lung was removed in 2013.

He was nominated for 11 Grammy awards and won two, and given a lifetime achievement award at the 2020 ceremony. He played a 1960s Martin D-28 for the majority of his career, and was honored with a signature model in 2017.

Although mainstream success eluded Prine for much of his career, recognition of his contributions manifested in his later years, as his 2016 duets album For Better, or Worse - featuring the likes of Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert - landed at No. 30 on the Billboard chart, while his biggest success came in the form of his final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, which positioned at No. 5.