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John Prine, legendary singer-songwriter, dies of COVID-19 at age 73.

The full-time legend was a part-time Gulfport resident. He died in a Nashville hospital of complications from COVID-19, his family says.
John Prine died on Tuesday, April 7.
John Prine died on Tuesday, April 7. [ Courtesy of Danny Clinch ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020
Updated Apr. 8, 2020

Like all the great poets, John Prine had a lot to say about dying.

Please Don’t Bury Me. He Was In Heaven Before He Died. When I Get to Heaven.

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand, he sang in that last one, released just a couple of years ago. Thank Him for more blessings than one man can stand. Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock 'n' roll band.

Even in the afterlife, Prine still knew his words could make you smile. He just never saw the end coming like this.

The legendary singer-songwriter died Tuesday in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital from complications of COVID-19, his family told news outlets. He was 73.

Prine had been hospitalized since late March after developing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. His wife, Fiona, had tested positive for the coronavirus earlier in March and was staying in quarantine, isolated from Prine, whose history of health problems included twice beating cancer and canceling tour dates last year when doctors said he was at an elevated risk of a stroke.

Related: Singer John Prine 'critical' in hospital from coronavirus symptoms

When news of his hospitalization broke, two words ricocheted across Twitter: American and treasure.

“From the first time I heard Prine, he was saying things I wish I could say, I wish I’d thought of,” said singer-songwriter John McEuen, who worked with Prine through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. “He speaks your mind. He would speak your mind so often, with melody and a little sense of humor. He’s a true part of our culture.”

Born outside Chicago just after World War II, Prine served in Germany during the Vietnam conflict before returning to deliver the mail and sing songs at open mics around the Windy City. He was discovered first by Roger Ebert and then by Kris Kristofferson, and no sooner had comparisons to Bob Dylan begun than Dylan himself became a fan.

Related: The day before he died, a loving tribute in Gulfport

How could he not be? Prine’s self-titled first album included evocative epics Sam Stone, about a disillusioned soldier addicted to heroin; and Angel From Montgomery, told from the perspective of an overworked housewife who declares, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” That one was covered, famously, by Bonnie Raitt, but also John Denver, Tanya Tucker, Susan Tedeschi, Maren Morris and Dave Matthews Band, among countless others.

For his first album, Prine earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination — he would lose to the band America — but he never became as famous as Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen. When You Never Even Called Me By My Name became a country hit in 1974, it was as a cover by David Allan Coe.

Prine became the quintessential songwriter’s songwriter, a wordsmith revered both by his peers and the ones who followed in his footsteps. Dylan himself called his writing “pure Proustian existentialism.” Raitt called him “the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.”

Last year, he hosted his first All the Best Fest, a flyaway festival in the Dominican Republic, featuring artists like Steve Earle, Brandi Carlisle and Lucinda Williams, who had looked up to Prine for years before becoming friendly with him in Nashville.

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“Everybody wanted me to write with them,” Williams said in an interview last year. “But I only wanted to write with certain people, and one of them was John Prine.”

They tried working together on one of her best-known songs, Drunken Angel, but every idea he had didn’t quite fit. Every line he wrote, Williams could only picture him singing.

“It turned out they were great lines for John Prine songs," she said. “And I realized: He has such a distinct sound.”

Prine had spent the last couple of years on a career-capping victory lap, touring behind his album The Tree of Forgiveness and racking up a series of honorifics and recognitions, including the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

It all kept him busier than he had been in years. Which meant he spent more time than ever away from his second home in Pinellas County.

John Prine performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019.
John Prine performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

For years, Prine kept close friends in Pinellas, including the late promoter Johnny Green, and came often to visit, fishing and barbecuing and catching R&R. He once called Pass-a-Grille “one of our favorite places,” and in 2005 purchased a bungalow near the water in Gulfport.

“I never thought about buying a place,” Prine told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005. “We usually rent a house when we come here. But (Gulfport) is such a neat neighborhood.”

Prine mostly kept a low profile in town, unless he was performing. He popped up on stage during local concerts by Kristofferson and Van Morrison, and welcomed surprise guests like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson at his own shows.

As he told the New York Times in 2018: “Fiona is a beach person. I just bought a 1977 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and I’ve got that down at the house in Florida, so I usually take that to the carwash and go get a hot dog and wait for Fiona to come back from the beach, and then we go out to a nice restaurant at night.”

At his final local performance, at Ruth Eckerd Hall in December, he noted all his friends and well-wishers in the crowd — as well as a few who had already passed on.

At one point in the show, a fan hollered “I love you!” to Prine. He said he loved them, too.

“When you get to be my age,” he said, “you tell everybody you love them.”