Remembering John Prine: 7 essential albums

Seven albums you should check out very soon.
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“You and me
Sitting in the back of my memory
Like a honey bee
Buzzin' round a glass of sweet chablis"

I was introduced to the shaggy-dog genius of John Prine in the Summer of 1976. I had just finished 8th grade, and a group of us went off with a teacher on a cross-country RV trip which included a week at a classic American Dude Ranch. On the weekend, a goofy college-age wrangler named Marty joined in the staff talent show and sang a song called “Dear Abby.” We all thought it was the greatest thing ever. We had no clue it was written by a former mailman from Chicago who was not yet 30. We had never heard of John Prine.

Even if I had known about Prine back then, I doubt I would have paid much attention. We were charging hard into adolescence and the Who, the Stones, and Aerosmith were our weapons of choice to fend off anything that smacked of country. About the closest we would have come back then was admitting Little Feat was pretty good.

So I didn’t really fall in love with Prine until I came across an early greatest hits collection maybe ten years after that Summer on the ranch. “Dear Abby” was there again. So were eleven other tracks, every one of them funnier and more touching – more understanding of the things that make the world go ‘round – than virtually any other music I had ever heard. That album – “Prime Prine” – was released after his fourth album, as he switched labels from Atlantic to Asylum.

Seven essential John Prine albums

Not many artists can put out a top-notch greatest hits compilation after just four records. But when you never write a single bad song – when your originals range from pretty good to “among the best I’ve ever heard” – when you’re John Prine – well, then you can do it.

I mean, think of this. “Prime Prine” offers a dozen gems culled from those 1st four albums, and it doesn’t even bother to include two of his most iconic songs – “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise” – from his self-titled debut.

You can do that when you’re John Prine.

Prine released 18 original albums between 1971 and 2018. After the roaring success of his last album, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” he began writing songs for a new record. His death four years ago as of Sunday, April 7, from coronavirus robbed us of another full album. We did get a final single – the touching “I Remember Everything” – as well as a number of tribute albums from many of the artists he touched throughout his long career.

Of those 18 albums, 13 were what you’d consider standard. They mostly feature Prine originals, sung almost exclusively by the man himself. He would usually drop in a cover or two, often as a final track. And every once in a while, he would feature a second vocalist. But most of what you get on those 13 albums is all Prine.

The other five are what you might call specialty projects. The first of these was a Christmas-themed record, released in 1993. In 1999, he released an album of duets with many of the top female vocalists in country music, performing an array of classic country love songs. That concept would prove so successful that he would do a follow-up in 2016, with a new group of partners and a new collection of standards.

In 2000, Prine rerecorded many original classics from his 1st decade as a performer in a compilation called “Souvenirs.” In 2007, the 60-year-old Prine teamed up with the 82-year-old bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman to put out a collection of country/bluegrass standards.  Of course, there were other hits collections and plenty of live recordings along the way.

I had listened to a lot of Prine in the week before his death. Given his age and history of medical problems, we all knew that COVID was a battle he might not be able to win. But we hoped anyway. This was one very tough man. He held on for a long time, but the sad news eventually came, and the world grew a little colder. So I spent the next day listening to those 18 albums straight through. It was sad in some ways, but it was also great fun. Eye-opening and therapeutic. I had heard every one of these tracks, but as with anything else, I had my favorites. There were some albums I had not listened to in decades.

Here are the seven best from that collection. I want to stress that Prine never released a bad album. You could put any one of them on and be simultaneously charmed and moved. These are just seven really good ones with which to begin the journey.