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John Prine

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John Prine, who for five decades wrote rich plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music, died Tuesday at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 73. The cause was complications related to COVID-19, his family confirmed to Rolling Stone. Prine, who left behind an extraordinary body of folk-country classics, was hospitalized last month after the sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms and was placed in intensive care for 13 days. Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona, announced on March 17th that she had tested positive for the virus after they had returned from a European tour. As a songwriter, Prine was admired by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and others, known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience. There’s “Hello in There,” about the devastating loneliness of an elderly couple; “Sam Stone,” a portrait of a drug-addicted Vietnam soldier suffering from PTSD; and “Paradise,” an ode to his parents’ strip-mined hometown of Paradise, Kentucky, which became an environmental anthem. Prine tackled these subjects with empathy and humor, with an eye for “the in-between spaces,” the moments people don’t talk about, he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Dylan said in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.” Prine was also an author, actor, record-label owner, two-time Grammy winner, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the recipient of the 2016 PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, a honor previously given to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Prine helped shape the Americana genre that has gained popularity in recent years, with the success of Prine fans such as Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carilie, to name a few. His music was covered by Bonnie Raitt (who popularized “Angel from Montgomery,” his soulful ballad about a woman stuck in a hopeless marriage), George Strait, Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Maura O’Connell, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Todd Snider, Carl Perkins, Bette Midler, Gail Davies, and dozens of others. Prine was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois. His father was a tool and die maker and the president of the local steelworkers union, and raised John and his three brothers on the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and other heroes of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Though he was a poor student, Prine was a natural songwriter; two songs he wrote when he was 14, “Sour Grapes” and “The Frying Pan,” ended up on his LP Diamonds in the Rough, more than 10 years later. Prine had a restless imagination — “I would go to class and just stare at something like a button on the teacher’s shirt,” he said — but he excelled at hobbies he focused on, like gymnastics, which he was inspired to take up by his older brother, Doug. “Here was something I had no natural ability in, and I could do it well,” Prine said.