John Prine, the country-folk singer and songwriter behind classics such as “Angel from Montgomery,” died Tuesday, April 7 at age 73.
The musician died as a result of complications from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, a representative confirmed on behalf of Prine’s family to PEOPLE Tuesday.
“This is hard news for us to share,” his family wrote. “But so many of you have loved and supported John over the years, we wanted to let you know, and give you the chance to send on more of that love and support now,” the statement continued. “And know that we love you, and John loves you.”
His wife of 23 years, Fiona Whelan Prine, was also diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier in March and had been keeping fans updated about Prine’s condition while he was in the hospital.
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On April 2, Fiona shared on Instagram that she was unable to be with Prine in the hospital’s intensive care unit in order to remain safe herself, which she said “makes this nightmare all the more distressing for me.”
“As you know, John was put on a ventilator last Saturday,” she wrote. “He still needs quite a bit of help with his breathing. Like many patients currently in ICU beds all around the world, John has pneumonia in both lungs. He has also developed some peripheral issues that are being treated with meds, including antibiotics.”
Fiona also thanked everyone for the “outpouring of love and prayers that John and [their] family has received this last week.”
“It means the world to us to have your love and support at this difficult time,” she wrote. “John loves you and I love you too.🙏🏼❤️💚”
With songs that spanned from poignant to political to rollickingly humorous, Prine earned the admiration of musical icons such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. He was honored at January’s Grammys with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Bonnie Raitt sang Prine’s 1971 ballad “Angel from Montgomery” — one of her signature concert songs — onstage.
Born in Illinois to parents from western Kentucky, Prine served in the Army and worked as a mailman before his career in the Chicago folk scene started taking off, with help from a rave review by Roger Ebert. “He wrote a full page on ‘Singing Mailman Delivers The Message,’ I think that was the headline,” Prine recalled in a 2018 NPR interview. “And I never had an empty seat after that.”
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His critically acclaimed debut album in 1971 contained several songs now considered classics of country-folk, including “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam veteran addicted to heroin (which included the haunting line “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”); “Hello in There,” which lamented the loneliness of aging; “Paradise,” inspired by his father’s stories of the devastation caused by coal strip-mining in his home town; and the anti-war song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore;” along with “Angel from Montgomery.”
Prine also co-wrote David Allan Coe’s satirical 1975 hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (though he took his credit off). Artists who covered his songs included John Denver, the Everly Brothers, Carly Simon, Dwight Yoakum and Bette Midler. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree,” Bob Dylan told The Huffington Post in 2009.
In recent years, Prine survived cancer twice. In 1998, he had surgery and radiation to fight squamous cell cancer that was found on his neck, and underwent a year of speech therapy before he could perform again, with a more gravelly voice.
“I think it improved my voice, if anything,” he told NPR. “I always had a hard time listening to my singing before my surgery.”
In 2013, he survived lung cancer, regaining his strength by running up and down the stairs of his house and then picking up his guitar to sing a song. He released his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, in 2018.
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He is survived by Fiona and their three children.
“He was incredibly endearing and witty,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2017. “The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute mixed with his homespun sense of humor – it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.”
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