John Prine Wasn’t A Texan – But He Embodied The State’s Songwriter Tradition


This weekend, Austin City Limits will rebroadcast Prine’s final appearance on the program.

By Laura RiceApril 17, 2020 9:00 am

Beloved American singer-songwriter John Prine lost his battle with COVID-19 on April 7. He was 73.

Prine wasn’t a Texan, but you might have thought he was if you were a fan of public television’s nationally-syndicated Austin City Limits program. Prine was featured on ACL eight times, making his debut in 1978. ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona called Prine “integral to the essence” of the show. This weekend, ACL will rebroadcast Prine’s final ACL session, captured some 40 years after his first appearance. 

During that same 2018 tour, for what would be Prine’s final studio album “The Tree of Forgiveness,” music host Elizabeth McQueen of Austin’s KUTX caught up with Prine, who explained his distinctive, no frills style.  

“I learned how to play the guitar when I was 14,” Prine said. “And my brother gave me a Carter Family record and an Elizabeth Cotten record and that’s how I learned to fingerpick. And I learned the Carter Family songs and I couldn’t – I had trouble [remembering] the lyrics so I started making up my own lyrics. And that’s how I kind of got started writing songs. It was easier to remember my own words than it was somebody else’s.”

But for years, Prine didn’t share his music – until he got out of the Army.

“That was another watershed moment for me. [I] was watching ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ when Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan sang, what was it? ‘Girl From the North Country.’ And I thought, somewhere in between those two is where I want to be.”

Texan Kris Kristofferson is often credited with discovering Prine, who developed a loyal audience right away, including many fellow singer-songwriters. Prine never had what you’d call a hit record. Later on, his songs would be celebrated as the very definition of what’s now come to be called Americana music, though he influenced artists across the musical spectrum.  

By the time he got around to completing his 2018 album, Prine had weathered more than his share of health problems, including a bout with cancer that gave his voice a distinctive grit, and left a mark on his music too, including reflections on his own mortality – and beyond…

Prine said he imagined heaven as a place where he could finally have another cigarette – and hopefully a cocktail.

“But I figure, I mean if heaven is a bunch of people in white robes singing mediocre songs, I’m gonna need a drink when I get there,” Prine said.


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