John Prine on His Resurgence: ‘It Took 45 Years for Some People to Get the Joke’
With his 2018 album, The Tree of Forgiveness -- his first studio album in 13 years -- becoming the highest-charting album of John Prine's extensive, over four-decade-long run in music, the songwriter and Americana giant is in the middle of one of the most dramatic resurgences of any artist in the format.
"My audience has more than doubled in the last 10 years," Prine told CBS News in a recent interview. "It took some of 'em 45 years to get the joke. Some people are getting it now, and I'm still around to reap the benefits."
Prine shined, as he has often done in the past, during the 2018 AmericanaFest: His landmark new album helped him bring home the title of Artist of the Year at the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony, and in a special all-star panel that also included other stalwarts of the format such as Jason Isbell and Margo Price, Prine discussed the future of the genre, including his own personal future in it. Yet Prine's appeal has, in recent years, extended past his Americana fanbase toward more broad and general audiences. In October of 2018, he was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The fact that he is still alive to see the resurgence of his music's popularity isn't something Prine takes for granted. The singer has overcome two bouts with cancer, once after he was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck in 1996, and once when he underwent treatment for lung cancer in 2013. However, he tells CBS, he hasn't ever written a song expressly about his illness.
"I think people would run the other way," Prine explains with a laugh.
Still, the full range of Prine's music, and his ability to encapsulate moments of both desperation and levity in his songs, have earned him praise from iconic artists such as Bob Dylan as well as a few famous fans, including Dan Auerbach and Sturgill Simpson. A songwriter's songwriter, Prine's legacy could easily have become that of an industry giant, beloved by songwriters and musicians but under-appreciated by general audiences.
Thanks in part to the success of The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine's legacy as a fan favorite -- as well as a revered member of his songwriting community -- now seems secure. However, the musical icon is careful to never hit a level of superstardom so high he can't enjoy some of the more day-to-day aspects of his life.
"I couldn't understand why he was so reluctant to be the superstar that I think he is, that I know he is, that his fans know he is. Now I do," explains Prine's wife, Fiona Whelan, to CBS. "He wants to be able to go to Kroger in his dirty black T-shirt."
With both a skyrocketing fanbase and a personal life that suits his grounded personality, Prine says that he has much to be grateful for, and the ups and downs of his life and career -- including his fights with cancer -- make his newfound career resurgence all the more special. "Everything just looks better to you," Prine explains. "You're more grateful for smaller things. And it feels pretty darn good."