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John Prine, poignant, comic chronicler of holes in the soul

Mr. Prine, a writer of 20-plus albums, died from complications of COVID-19.
Mr. Prine, a writer of 20-plus albums, died from complications of COVID-19.Rich Fury/Getty Images/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — John Prine was a raspy-voiced heartland troubadour who wrote and performed songs about faded hopes, failing marriages, flies in the kitchen, and the desperation of people just getting by. He was, as one of his songs put it, the bard of ‘‘broken hearts and dirty windows.’’

A onetime Army mechanic and mail carrier who wrote songs rooted in the experiences of lower-middle-class life, Mr. Prine rose to prominence almost by accident. He was at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg one night in 1969, complaining about the performers, when someone challenged him to get onstage, saying, ‘‘You get up and try.’’

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Emboldened by a few beers, he picked up his guitar and sang three of his original songs. Within a year, he released his first album and was hailed as one of the foremost lyricists of his time, an heir to Bob Dylan.

He would end up recording more than 20 albums, win three Grammy Awards, and help define a genre of music that came to be called Americana. He was a significant influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters, including Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who called him ‘‘the closest thing I could imagine to ever being around Mark Twain.’’

Mr. Prine, 73, has died after being hospitalized in Nashville of complications from the novel coronavirus, the media relations family Sacks & Co. said on behalf of his family. He overcame throat cancer in the 1990s and lung cancer in 2013.

The three tunes Mr. Prine sang at his debut performance in Chicago were written during his breaks while delivering mail. All became classics in the singer-songwriter tradition: ‘‘Sam Stone,’’ about a Vietnam vet returning home with a drug habit; ‘‘Hello in There,’’ about the emotional loneliness of older people; and ‘‘Paradise,’’ an autobiographical lament about his family’s Kentucky hometown, plowed under to make way for strip mines.

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Not long after he received a glowing review from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, Mr. Prine quit his job with the Postal Service. His supervisor told him, ‘‘You’ll be back.’’

His songs about blue-collar woes and hard-luck lives soon attracted a devoted following, which

Mr. Prine, at the Somerville Theater.
Mr. Prine, at the Somerville Theater.Jim MacMillan for the Boston Globe/1988

included Dylan, who described Mr. Prine’s work as ‘‘pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.’’

When Mr. Prine was a 24-year-old mail carrier, he received a career boost from his friend Steve Goodman, a Chicago musician who wrote ‘‘The City of New Orleans.’’ Goodman persuaded singer, songwriter, and actor Kris Kristofferson to listen to Mr. Prine after hours at a Chicago club. After listening to about seven songs, Kristofferson asked Mr. Prine to play them all again.

‘‘He was unlike anybody I’d ever seen — such a young kid, and yet he’s writing songs like ‘Hello in There,’ ‘‘ Kristofferson told The Washington Post in 2005. ‘‘John was singing some of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and they still are the best songs I’ve ever heard.’’

In ‘‘Hello in There,’’ an old man reflects on his life and its litany of sorrows: ‘‘We lost Davy in the Korean War, and I still don’t know what for, it don’t matter anymore.’’

In the song’s chorus, he sings, ‘‘Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’’’

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From the beginning, he combined pathos and humor, the lyrical and the satirical. One of his more high-spirited tunes, ‘‘Illegal Smile,’’ was interpreted as a nod to marijuana. Another was a spoof of the letters to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren:

“Dear Abby, Dear Abby . . .

My fountain pen leaks,

My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks.

Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed,

If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.

Signed, Unhappy.’’

‘‘He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people,’’ Ted Kooser, the 2005 poet laureate of the United States, said. ‘‘He did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ‘60s and ‘70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Vietnam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ ‘‘

‘‘Sam Stone’’ is a chilling ballad about a wounded veteran with the gravity of a three-act play. Mr. Prine describes the vet coming home ‘‘with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back’’ and how ‘‘the morphine eased the pain’’ of his physical and psychic wounds.

A recurring chorus suggests the poignant view of a child growing up too soon: ‘‘There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin,’ I suppose.’’

Some listeners were offended by the invocation of Jesus in a song about drug addiction, but Mr. Prine said he was ‘‘just trying to think of something as hopeless’’ as a Vietnam vet succumbing to his private demons.

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‘‘You write a song about something that you think might be taboo,’’ he told Rolling Stone, ‘‘you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it.’’

His 1971 debut album, titled simply ‘‘John Prine,’’ received strong reviews — ‘‘he squeezes poetry out of the anguished longing of empty lives,’’ a Time magazine critic wrote — but modest sales.

Other performers recognized his talent, however, and Bette Midler and Joan Baez both recorded “Hello in There.’’ The Everly Brothers did a version of ‘‘Paradise,’’ and Johnny Cash sang ‘‘Sam Stone’’ (omitting the line about Jesus). Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty did background vocals for Mr. Prine’s 1992 album ‘‘The Missing Years,’’ and Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi had memorable interpretations of ‘‘Angel From Montgomery,’’ which Mr. Prine wrote from the perspective of a woman regretting the missed opportunities in life.

His unadorned melodies were effective vehicles for introspective lyrics drawn from everyday sources. A haunting line from ‘‘Sam Stone’’ — ‘‘Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios’’ — was inspired by an Army buddy whose radio was held together with electrical tape.

When he wrote ‘‘Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring?’’ for the 1971 song ‘‘Far From Me,’’ Mr. Prine said he recalled an image from childhood of broken glass sparkling in the city dump near his house.

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‘‘I don’t know of a better thing to follow as a writer than what your gut instinct tells you,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s where everything springs from.’’

Mr. Prine’s first two marriages, to Ann Carole Menaloscino and musician Rachel Peer, ended in divorce. (“Divorces have a way of turning into memorable songs for me,’’ he said.) In 1993, he married Fiona Whelan, who became his manager. They had two sons, and he adopted her son. Fiona Prine said she also contracted the coronavirus. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In 2018, Mr. Prine released his first album of new music in 13 years. The 10 songs on ‘‘The Tree of Forgiveness’’ (some written with collaborators) showed the same blend of humor, sorrow, and outrage. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart and No. 5 on the pop chart, giving the 72-year-old Prine the biggest hit record of his career.