John Prine has been a revered name in Americana music since before there was such a title. The singer-songwriter from Chicago has been crafting songs that reach into the souls of fans and fellow musicians for fifty years, and the tunes he created and sang along his mail delivery route have now become American classics, along with many more. Listeners of a certain age carry fond memories of John Prine singing “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the forgiving pathos in songs like “All the Best.”

Forgiveness is still a prominent theme in John Prine's music, and his latest album, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” encompasses forgiving oneself, God, and others while keeping the sense of wonder and humor about life that has become a trademark for John Prine.

Offhandedly, the songwriter insists that “once you beat cancer, you don't worry about black cats,” to CBS News anchor, Anthony Mason, on November 25’s “Sunday Morning.” Perhaps it's not surprising that the album has become Prine’s first number one album. It was intentionally released on Friday the 13th in April. Like Neil Young, John Hiatt, and other notable composers known for songs that abide in the permanent consciousness instead of merely climbing the charts, John Prine has never chased achieving hits, but he is relishing his career and the simple joys of going grocery shopping.

Unexpected reviews

During an impromptu pool game, hosted “to make you look good, John,” last year’s Grammy winner for Best Country Album and Album of the Year, Sturgill Simpson, declares that “You hold these guys in such a light, and then, you meet them, and it's like your dirty uncle.” Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys defines John Prine as “magic” due to his ability to take a listener through tears, back to laughter, and always leave the soul “satisfied.”

Roger Ebert, the famous film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, had the same lasting tinge of satisfaction from stopping in to see John Prine in 1970, after leaving the film he was supposed to review.

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Ebert simply offered that the “Singing mailman delivers powerful message” in the headline of his review, and John Prine is eternally grateful that there hasn't been “an empty seat” for his shows since those fateful words.

Last spring, at a concert after the release of “The Tree of Forgiveness,” Radio City Music Hall was sold out with an eager audience to experience John Prine. For sure, some there were hoping to hear his Vietnam anthem, “Sam Stone,” but among the faithful were more relevant fans, loving “Lonesome Friends of Science” and the redemptive “When I Get to Heaven.” Bets are that no one left not humming a tune, or with a soul unfilled.

It's certainly a delight for John Prine to be pleasing audiences that have doubled in the last 10 years, and the senior songwriter has another double distinction at 72: being nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. The honors couldn't come at a sweeter juncture.

New gratitude

John Prine has probed topics of love and hate, hurt and heartbreak, and even God and Jesus in his music.

One topic he has battled but refuses to write about is cancer. “I think people would run the other way,” the songwriter reflects on the possibility of writing about “a great song about cancer.” Nonetheless, this balladeer faced this personal battle with truth, courage, and grace.

When John discovered a lump while shaving in 1996, there was a lot happening in the lives of the songwriter and his wife of 22 years, Fiona, and in that moment, it seemed that his life was on the brink of ending.

Music was not weighing on the artist's mind, only that “I just wanted to live.” The tilt of his head from removing a chunk of his neck is a small price to pay according to John Prine, who told his doctors to “cut it out, come back, and then tell me I don't have cancer anymore.” Prine worked for over a year to regain vocal strength. So far, the surgeons' handiwork is holding just fine, and the patient is having the time of his life. His life-and-death experience has given Prine brighter perspective and “more gratitude for smaller things.” Going for groceries at the neighborhood market in Nashville is among those smaller things.

While her husband has a newfound resurgence in creativity and a resounding appreciation of life, Fiona Prine explains the reason why her husband is hesitant to embrace his deserved superstar status in music. “He wants to go to Kroger's in his dirty black T-shirt,” she asserts, with no disagreement.

No matter what he chooses to wear, the songs from this master songwriter never go out of style.

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