To write about John Prine, whose death from COVID-19 related complications in April 2020 devastated fans around the world, is an inherently intimate act. Prine’s music has always felt like a treasured good, sacred and familial. I felt that as a kid, hearing stories from my dad, who lived near Chicago in the 1970s and saw the “singing mailman” perform countless times. When we saw Prine play at the Chicago Theatre in 2018 (performing his final album The Tree of Forgiveness), I knew something special was at hand. Though Prine’s death was a tragedy, even one night in his musical company crystallized decades of love and devotion handed down like a family heirloom.
In that sense, Erin Osmon’s new book on John Prine, his eponymous 1971 debut, is a gift for fans of the plainspoken singer and this career-making album. The book, part of Bloomsbury Publishing’s popular 33 ⅓ series, reaffirms Prine’s unmistakable midwestern sensibility, one that Osmon, herself an Indiana native and previously a 15-year Chicago resident (she is now based in LA), captures with ease. “I’ve always understood Prine through the lens of our middle American provenance, and admired his singular ability to convey our commonplace happenings to universal effect,” Osmon writes in the preface. It’s an understanding that she gracefully unfolds in the story of Prine’s Kentucky roots, his childhood in suburban Maywood, time served in the military and as a mail carrier, and the improbable events that launched a 25-year-old Prine into near-overnight success.
Prine was born in Maywood on October 10, 1946, an integrated suburb just west of Chicago, where he overlapped at the same high school as Black Panther Party Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton. As Osmon shows, Prine was as much a product of the modest, working-class suburb as he was of his family’s roots in Kentucky. “Where you’re from and where you grew up are often separate places,” Osmon notes, an understanding that Prine’s parents Bill and Verna instilled in Prine and his three brothers at a young age.
The family’s roots were in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a rural idyll where “paradise” wasn’t merely a hopeful word, but the name of the village where Bill and Verna first met. “Paradise,” Prine’s withering account of the strip mining that left its rolling hills scarred and unrecognizable, is tinged with a generations-long rootedness, and the agony of watching your ancestral home torn to pieces. Osmon, who also has deep family ties throughout Kentucky, conveys Prine’s reverence for his ancestors, and the ways in which the landscape itself would shape his spare, spacious musical compositions. It’s an understanding that also appears on Prine’s empathetic masterpiece, “Hello In There,” sung both to the oft-forgotten elderly people who populated Prine’s youth and the home that was destroyed in front of his family’s eyes. His lyrics tell us, “You know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder every day / Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Beyond his family stories, Osmon establishes the no-nonsense musical world that skyrocketed Prine from uncertain open-mike performer to major-label sensation. From a mythic debut performance that left his audience speechless, to the first review penned by Roger Ebert the day before Prine’s 24th birthday, Chicagoans caught on fast to the singer’s unique gift. Still, Prine wouldn’t have found his voice without the emergence of the Old Town School of Folk Music, a nonhierarchical, informal musical community founded in 1957, or the Earl of Old Town, an unpretentious nightclub that sustained the folk music revival in Chicago and gave Prine many of his earliest gigs. This honest, dedicated musical community is as much a part of the story as Prine’s thoughtful storytelling, and Osmon places its influence center stage in the making of Prine’s early career.
In that sense, Osmon’s greatest gift is her ability to reflect Chicago’s unpretentious curiosity, its openness to a young, uncertain singer who soon won the city over. “Prine performed songs that would comprise his self-titled debut to a cross section of Chicago nightcrawlers: blue-collar laborers, hip young artists, fellow musicians, curious suburbanites, roving mafia, cops, and the journalists who covered the scene, all of whom recognized the star in their midst, none of them fools,” she writes, placing us back in the fast-gentrifying Old Town neighborhood that first took the future honorary Illinois Poet Laureate seriously. Prine’s sturdy songwriting won over the unsuspecting for a reason: “When things get fancy, Chicagoans get suspicious,” Osmon writes.
Prine’s legacy is inextricably bound up in the city that was lucky enough to hear his clarion voice first. Osmon’s John Prine is a celebration of the ways that the singer emerged from the firmament of his Kentuckian legacy, and the city that will always claim him as one of our own. A half-century after the album sounded the opening notes of an illustrious career, Prine fans still cherish his music as if it belongs only to them, a gift to be shared with care and steady attention.