John Prine: 10 essential songs, with picks from a former bandmate

Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO -- When Angelo Varias was on the road with John Prine, as a drummer in his late 1970s backup band, it was a good vibe, Varias remembered, a bunch of Chicago guys and a bandleader "who was probably the easiest-going, but nicest and most supportive band person I've worked with."

But then the tour would land someplace like L.A. and Varias and bandmates would see their compatriot in a new light as people like Kris Kristofferson and Phil Spector came backstage at the Roxy to pay their respects.

"When we'd enter a room and there'd be somebody like Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) there and he'd be on his knees in front of John telling him how great he was," Varias said, "it was really a revelation to us that this guy was something special."

Prine, who grew up in Maywood and composed some of his earliest and best-known songs while walking a west suburban postal route, died at age 73 Tuesday in a Nashville hospital, one of the thousands of Americans felled in the coronavirus pandemic.

Tributes from fellow songwriting greats poured in. Bruce Springsteen recalled that "John and I were 'New Dylans' together in the early 70s" and called him "a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages."

Old Town School of Folk Music, where Prine learned guitar in the 60s, planned a virtual sing- and play-a-long Wednesday night to his debut album.


Attempts to capture his life felt so rich yet, necessarily, left so much out. And a whole lot of people Tuesday night pulled some of Prine's large catalog of studio and live records out of their album collection or typed his name into Spotify to conduct a private memorial service in the most fitting way possible.

Ten essential Prine songs are recommended at the end of this piece, but, you know, you could pick 25 others and not be wrong. You could pick any 10 of the 13 tracks on that self-titled, 1971 debut album and not be wrong.

Varias first connected with Prine through a mutual friend, the late songwriter Steve Goodman. Goodman, who, circa 1976 or '77, put together a "Rolling Blunder" tour of Chicago folk scene regulars, a spoof on Bob Dylan's big Rolling Thunder tour.

"There were, like, 11 people in the van playing a few places in the Midwest," he said. "John was one of many."


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