From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
At any given song circle, open mic, or other gathering of guitar pickers and singers, it usually won’t be long until someone breaks into a John Prine song. From “Paradise” to “Angel from Montgomery” to “In Spite of Ourselves,” Prine’s songs are essential repertoire in the country/folk/Americana songbook, because they are both accessible and unforgettable. With the simplest ingredients—a handful of chords, a rough-hewn voice with limited range—Prine created evocative stories-in-song that could be poignant, profound, and funny as hell.
Prine’s place in the pantheon of American songwriting became clear when the hard news hit in April that he’d passed away, at 73, due to complications from the coronavirus. His health had long been poor, as he endured multiple bouts with cancer, but Prine had delivered the warm and wise album The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018—the highest-charting release of his career—followed by triumphant touring, and it seemed like his music would keep coming. In the weeks following his death, tributes poured in from generations of artists: Bonnie Raitt, Roger Waters, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, Dave Matthews, Jeff Tweedy, Kacey Musgraves, and on and on. The words that stuck with me most came from country/folk singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, Prine’s long-time friend and frequent collaborator.
“John Prine was, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters this world will ever know,” DeMent wrote on Facebook. “Here’s why he rests on my heart’s mountaintop: Because he cared enough to look—at me, you, all of us—until he saw what was noble, and then he wrapped us up in melodies and sung us back to ourselves. That was the miracle of John Prine. And it was enough.”
Prine was known most of all for his lyrical gifts, but the foundation of all his music was his flattop guitar, which he strummed and fingerpicked with a few classic styles that provided everything he needed to accompany a lifetime of songs. This lesson takes a tour of Prine’s music by way of his guitar style, using examples drawn from some of his most-loved songs. As with every aspect of his music, Prine managed to make simple guitar patterns distinctive. Even without the melody and words, the guitar parts sound like songs.
The Singing Mailman Delivers
In 1970, journalist Roger Ebert happened to walk into a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg and caught a set by Prine, who had only started performing the year before and worked by day as a mail carrier. Ebert was astounded to hear the young, unassuming singer deliver songs like “Angel from Montgomery” (see Acoustic Classic on page 62 of the print and digital edition) and “Hello in There,” and he wrote a full-page review for the Chicago Sun-Times under the headline “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.”
Ebert quoted the devastating chorus of “Sam Stone,” Prine’s portrait of a drug-addicted veteran: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” Ebert wrote, “You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday.” Anyone spinning Prine’s self-titled debut from the following year would have to wonder the same thing—how could any songwriter deliver songs with such depth, maturity, and emotional range seemingly right out of the gate?
Prine was steeped in early country music, from the Carter Family to Hank Williams, and had learned old-time styles through his older brother. In “Paradise,” one of the many gems from his debut album, Prine so successfully tapped into traditional sounds that even bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe initially mistook it for a song from the ’20s. In 1967, when Prine was in the Army, he received a letter from his father with a newspaper clipping about how his childhood home of Paradise, Kentucky, had been bought, strip-mined, and torn down by the coal company. So Prine wrote “Paradise” for his father. “First of all, I wanted to put him in the song, because I knew he’d like the song if he was in it,” Prine said in 2019 while introducing “Paradise” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “And the second reason is, I wanted him to know I was a songwriter.”
John Fogerty, one of the scores of artists who’ve covered “Paradise,” told me in a 2009 AG interview that Prine’s song is “a touchstone for people like us who becry the way corporations get to run roughshod over what may be desired by the little guy, but he’s powerless to stop it or stand in the way.”
“Paradise” is a straight-up three-chord waltz. Prine used a simple bass/strum pattern in the key of D, as shown in Example 1. Play bass notes on beat one and strums on beats two and three, with a few connecting bass runs and a quick hammer-on (measure 6) for variety.
The next example is based on another enduring song from Prine’s debut, “Hello in There,” a portrait of a lonely older couple who’ve grown disconnected from their kids and each other. In a moving tribute after Prine’s death, Brandi Carlile covered “Hello in There” and noted its relevance to vulnerable people living in isolation during the pandemic—as the song asks us not to pass by people with “hollow ancient eyes,” but to acknowledge and greet them.
“Hello in There” has far more chords than the usual Prine song. In Example 2, play fingerstyle (Prine typically used a thumbpick and his bare fingers), with an alternating bass and a melody on top—a style that goes back to Prine’s beginnings as a guitarist. “I learned how to fingerpick by trying to pick like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt,” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2018. “When I was 14 years old, I’d sit in the closet in the dark, in case I ever went blind, to see if I could play.”
Use a capo at the fifth fret and play a steady alternating bass throughout with your thumb. Pick the high strings mostly on the off beats. Add hammer-ons in measures 2, 8, and 12. Prine often used his thumb for fretting sixth-string notes under chords like G, D/F#, and F, but this example is also playable without thumb fretting.
“Souvenirs,” from Prine’s second album, Diamonds in the Rough, is another early song that reveals an old soul. In just a few words, Prine evoked the burdens of nostalgia. “Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see,” he sang. “That’s why last night and this morning always look the same to me.”
Prine often performed “Souvenirs” with fellow Chicago songsmith Steve Goodman, and the version on Diamonds in the Rough entwines their two guitars—Prine playing D shapes at capo five, Goodman using C shapes at capo seven—and also has them trading off lead vocals. (On the later Souvenirs album, released in 2000, Prine dropped the key and capoed at the second fret.) As in many of his songs, Prine picked the melody instrumentally before entering with the vocal, playing a part similar to Example 3. In measure 3, lower the bass a half step under the G, to F#, before going to the A7. Again, Prine would fret these bass notes with his thumb.
The Light Side
For a songwriter whose lyrics could be so sad, Prine was a master of sly comic writing, with songs like the cheerfully morbid “Please Don’t Bury Me,” the silly/flirty “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian,” and “Dear Abby,” the advice column in song with the useful reminder that “You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t.”
Example 4 shows the style Prine used to accompany “Dear Abby,” released as a live track on the 1973 album Sweet Revenge. Like “Paradise,” “Dear Abby” is a flatpicked waltz, played up-tempo using G shapes. Capo on the fourth fret to match Prine’s key of B major, and use quick, light down-up strums for the pairs of chords as in measures 1, 4, 5, and so on.
At the end of the ’90s, Prine came back from a battle with cancer with In Spite of Ourselves, an album of classic country duets with Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and others. The title track was the album’s sole original, with endearing, mildly risqué banter between Prine and Iris DeMent.
“In Spite of Ourselves,” DeMent told me in a 2012 AG interview, “was a big hurdle for me. John had just survived cancer and decided he wanted to go back in the studio. I think that’s one of the first songs he recorded and he asked me to do it, and I said yes before I saw the lyrics… It’s kind of funny, talking about that song now, because I’ve sang it a thousand times with him all over the country and I feel completely comfortable and it’s fun and playful. But when I heard it the first time it was a little bit like… ‘I’ve got to make sure my mom never hears this.’ That seems silly now.”
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The guitar part for “In Spite of Ourselves” is another example of Prine’s melodic fingerpicking in the style of “Freight Train.” In Example 5, play out of C shapes, with the melody on the top strings. Keep up the alternating bass except for in measures 2, 4, and 8, where you stay put on the C bass note for three beats.
Prine’s 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness was in many ways the perfect parting word—it even closed with his musings on the afterlife in “When I Get to Heaven.” (One posthumous song was released in June: the equally appropriate farewell “I Remember Everything.”) The Tree of Forgiveness featured a number of co-writes (including one, oddly enough, with Phil Spector) and support from Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile.
One track that has been widely adopted by other artists—and Prine’s own favorite from the album—is “Summer’s End,” which Prine wrote with his longtime collaborator Pat McLaughlin. Among the many covers to be found online are lovely versions by Phoebe Bridgers (on guitar) and Sierra Hull (on octave mandolin). Over a wistful melody, “Summer’s End” shows Prine’s knack for finding just the right image to convey an emotional landscape:
You never know how far from home you’re feeling
Until you watch the shadows cross the ceiling
Well, I don’t know but I can see it snowing
In your car the windows are wide open
“Summer’s End” is fingerpicked with C shapes and a capo on the second fret, causing it to sound in the key of D major. During the verse, Prine plays a pattern similar to Example 6. Hammer onto the second string for the C chord in measures 1 and 2, then shift to Em; the first four measures serve also as an intro/interlude. Then move to an F and G for the remainder of the example, maintaining the alternating bass throughout.
The Song Goes Round
In April, New Orleans–based songwriter Carsie Blanton—one of countless musicians mourning the loss of Prine—responded in pitch-perfect fashion with the two-minute ditty “Fishin’ with You,” which borrows its melody from Prine’s song “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” and some chord voicings from “Fish and Whistle.” In lyrics that quote a bunch of other Prine songs (“Crazy as a Loon,” “Paradise,” “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” “Spanish Pipedream”), she thanks him for the tunes and the way he “made us all wanna sing.” After a quick selfie video of “Fishin’ with You” circulated widely on social media, Blanton released a single with contributions from, among others, Oliver Wood and Sara Watkins with all proceeds going to charities named by Prine’s family.
“I have loved John’s songs all my life,” Blanton said when I asked what she’d learned about songwriting from Prine’s example. “He taught me how to be vulnerable and sweet, and how to temper that with humor so it doesn’t cause a toothache.”