John Prine, the raspy-voiced country-folk singer whose ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favorite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others, died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He was 73.
The cause was complications from Covid-19, his family said.
Mr. Prineunderwent cancer surgery in 1998to remove a tumor in his neck identified as squamous cell cancer, which had damaged his vocal cords. In 2013, he had part of one lung removed to treat lung cancer.
Mr. Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when Mr. Kristofferson heard him play one night at a small Chicago club called the Fifth Peg, dragged there by the singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. Mr. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. At the Fifth Peg, Mr. Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Mr. Kristofferson later wrote, “was unlike anything I’d heard before.”
A few weeks later, when Mr. Prine was in New York, Mr. Kristofferson invited him onstage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where he was appearing with Carly Simon, and introduced him to the audience. “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,” he said. “John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”
The record executive Jerry Wexler, who was in the audience, signed Mr. Prine to a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.
Music writers at the time were eager to crown a successor to Mr. Dylan, and Mr. Prine, with his nasal, sandpapery voice and literate way with a song, came ready to order. His debut album, called simply “John Prine” and released in 1971, included songs that became his signatures. Some gained wider fame after being recorded by other artists.
They included “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted war veteran (with the unforgettable refrain “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”); “Hello in There,” a heart-rending evocation of old age and loneliness; and “Angel From Montgomery,” the hard-luck lament of a middle-aged woman dreaming about a better life, later made famous by Bonnie Raitt.
“He’s a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain,” Ms. Raitt told Rolling Stone in 1992.
Mr. Dylan, listing his favorite songwriters forThe Huffington Postin 2009, put Mr. Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said. “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
John Prine was born on Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Ill., a working-class suburb of Chicago, to William and Verna (Hamm) Prine. His father, a tool-and-die maker at the American Can Company, and his mother had moved from the coal town of Paradise, Ky., in the 1930s.
Mr. Prine later wrote a ruefully bitter song titled“Paradise,”in which he sang:
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
John grew up in a country music-loving family. He learned guitar as a young teenager from his grandfather and brother and began writing songs.
After graduating from high school, he worked for the Post Office for two years before being drafted into the Army, which sent him to West Germany in charge of the motor pool at his base. After being discharged, he resumed his mail route, in and around his hometown, composing songs in his head.