COVID-19 claimed millions of victims. One of those was the acclaimed Grammy Award-winning genre-crossing singer and songwriter John Prine, who died at the age of 73. He spent decades writing unusual songs with a lot of humor, a dash of pain and a whole heaping helping of insight into human nature. He collaborated with many musicians like Phil Spector, Steve Goodman, Roger Cook and Iris Dement but mainly wrote songs by himself. Some of his songs became hits – for other artists. Ain’t that always the way?
He did manage to get a hit album with The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018, a mere 47 years after the release of his first album. By the time of John Prine’s death, he was beloved by many. He even had his own label, Oh Boy Records. Do your ears (and heart) a favor by listening to these top 10 John Prine songs.
#10 – Illegal Smile
This is the very first song on John Prine’s very first album, 1971’s John Prine. The album would only peak at 154 on the charts, but it later got on just about everyone’s list of albums you need to hear before you die. If you don’t have time for the whole album, just listen to this one. “Illegal Smile” shows right away that John Prine was a different kind of songwriter with “Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down, and won.” Not only could he write a catchy tune, but had a sense of humor. Some delightful rhymes at the end. John Prine would later insist that the song was not about marijuana use, but about how he could find something to smile about that no one else could smile about.
#9 – Grandpa Was a Carpenter
John Prine has said that even as a child he always liked old people. This might be because of his grandfather. His grandfather was a musician while his father was a tool-and-dye maker. Whether or not the song s really about his grandfather is not the point. The point is that it’s a vivid portrait in song of the strange little details that make up a person’s life. For example, Grandpa “voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the War.” There’s been stranger reasons why people vote the way they do. There’s also a telling detail of the church described, with “hearing aids in every pew.” This song originally appeared in the 1973 album Sweet Revenge and rerecorded for his 2000 album Souvenirs.
#8 – Fish and Whistle
This is an almost chipper song with a lively melody, and a wry look at life and the afterlife. He seems to talk to both God and the listener, saying “You forgive us, and We’ll forgive You/ We’ll forgive each other until we both turn blue.” He sings about getting a job scrubbing parking lots at only fifty sense an hour. In order to echo the title, there is a recorder or tin whistle just doing cartwheels around the melody and lyrics. This came out in 1978 on Bruised Orange and also was rerecorded for Souvenirs.
#7 – In Spite of Ourselves
This duet with Iris Dement is a funny look at a couple that sees the best and worst of each other. This is perhaps one of the only songs you’ll hear that mentions somebody sniffing underwear. It has touches of sweetness without becoming saccharine. John Prine was Iris Dement’s mentor. She called him one of the best songwriters ever because he was able to find the nobility inside of each person. The song was commissioned by Oscar-winning actor Billy Bob Thornton for the critically acclaimed 2001 movie Daddy and Them. John Prine even had a role in the film as brother to Billy Bob Thornton’s character. This can be found on the 1999 album of the same title.
#6 – When I Get to Heaven
This song was written for what would be John Prine’s last album, The Tree of Forgiveness (2018), which would be the name of the club he wanted to open up in Heaven. Producer John Cobb recalled that it was John Prine who suggested the addition of kazoos, which just makes the song complete because it would make people laugh. And it did. The song also features laughter from his grandson. It is about the only song you’ll ever hear with the phrase “syphilitic parasitics.” It makes you hope that this was the heaven that John Prine is in now, smoking a cigarette “nine miles long.”
#5 – Hello in There
Many John Prine songs have to do with old people. Songs about them, like this one, appeared even on his 1971 debut album. This is a poignant, touching and at times painful look at an elderly man telling you about his current life. “The news just repeats itself”, and his wife “just stares out the back door screen.” John Prine explained that the echoing sound of the song was inspired by the Beatles “Across the Universe.” In this song, old trees grow stronger, old rivers grow wild, but old people? Well, they just grow lonely. This was yet another song John Prine rerecorded for his 2000 album Souvenirs.
#4 – Some Humans Ain’t Human
The title tells what this country folk-flavored song is about. It’s gentle and sad with a simple, elegant arrangement. Although he does seem to heave a metaphorical sigh at the cruelty of people, he hasn’t entirely given up. He tries to shine a light on the darkness of people (and one President in particular) in order to make a change. The song does feature his usual quirky sense of humor, such as describing cruel people as “ice cubes with hair”. Released on the 2005 album Fair & Square, it sadly sounds like it will be pertinent for centuries to come.
#3 – That’s the Way That the World Goes Round
This song was covered by Miranda Lambert in 2009, but arguably John Prine’s original was better. This version has recorders, which do not appear often enough in country or even folk music. John Prine would say of this song that he was “fed up” with cynicism and wanted to try to write a song from a child’s point of view. Somehow, it seems more unique to John Prine’s point of view than that of a child, especially since the song mentions domestic abuse and nearly freezing to death in a bathtub. Either that or John Prine’s childhood was one of a kind. This appears on the 1978 album Bruised Orange.
#2 – Sam Stone
Many of the song on this list are funny. That’s not to say that John Prine only wrote funny songs. It’s just that funny songs are a lot harder to write than sad songs. This is a bittersweet song about a fictional ex-Vietnam vet. John Prine would explain that Sam Stone was a compilation of many Vietnam vets he knew. He noticed that all of the anti-war songs he heard didn’t talk about the soldiers, so he wanted to fix that. And did. The song gives a series of gut-punches, emphasized with, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” “Sam Stone” originally appeared on John Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album, but he rerecorded it for his 2000 album Souvenirs.
#1 – Dear Abby
John Prine gives a lot of advice in his songs. So, it’s only natural that he would write a song about the Queen of Advice, Dear Abby. (If you have no idea who Dear Abby was, do a quick Google search now. We’ll wait — okay. Welcome back.) Writing anything more about the song will give the joke away. Just click the link and listen, and then you’ll know why made the top of our list of best John Prine songs. The original version appeared on the 1973 album Sweet Revenge.
Top 10 John Prine Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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