Legendary folk singer-songwriter John Prine is being honored with the Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award at the 62nd annual awards show on Sunday, January 26, featuring a tribute introduction and performance by Bonnie Raitt. His career spans nearly 50 years, but a lot of viewers may not know anything about this man who inspired some big-name artists and is also the writer behind dozens of well-known songs.
Here’s what you need to need to know about Prine ahead of his fourth Grammy Awards honor. Prine previously won Best Contemporary Folk Album twice and was also the Grammys’ Hall of Fame Award winner in 2015.
1. He’s A Veteran and Former Mailman
Prine was born in the small western Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois, in October 1946. He began playing guitar at the age of 14 and took classes at the local Old Town School of Folk Music, which boasts Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, Roger McGuinn, Steve Goodman and Bob Gibson amongst its former students and staff.
According to a 2015 biography called “In Spite of Himself” (via the Daily Telegraph), Prine attended Proviso East High School at the same time as actor Dennis Franz and his nickname was “Tippy Toes Two” because he was good at gymnastics; his brother Doug as “Tippy Toes One” and went on to become a lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department.
After graduating from high school, Prine was a mailman for five years and also served in the Army during the Vietnam War era as a mechanic stationed in West Germany. In a 2011 interview for Oh Boy Records commemorating the 40th anniversary of his debut, Prine said he used to make up songs while he delivered the mail.
“I always likened the mail route to a library with no books,” said Prine. “I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”
2. Prine Was Discovered by Kris Kristofferson
Prine’s start in music is the stuff of legend. In the early 1970s, he booked himself a regular gig at the Earl of Old Town, a bar that was the center of the Chicago folk music scene. The bar was right across the street from the Second City theater, so Bill Murray and John Belushi frequented Prine’s performances, according to Rolling Stone. In fact, Belushi is who helped get Prine a spot as the musical guest on season two, episode four of Saturday Night Live.
One night, fellow folk musician Steve Goodman brought up-and-coming singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson to one of Prine’s sets and the rest is history.
“By the end of the first line, we knew we were hearing something else,” Kristofferson said later. “It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene.”
Kristofferson soon brought Prine to New York to perform at the Bitter End and the next morning, Prine had a $25,000 contract with Atlantic Records.
3. He Has Collaborated With Some Big Names
Over the years, Prine has worked with such iconic artists as Bonnie Raitt, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Lefty Frizzell, Roger Cook, the Everly Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Alison Krauss, Phil Spector, Dan Auerbach, and Brandi Carlile.
He also boasts many famous fans, Bob Dylan chief amongst them. In 1971, Dylan got an early copy of Prine’s debut album and later sang along with them when Prine performed at Carly Simon’s apartment, despite the album not being released yet.
“The album wasn’t even out and he knew the words because he had an early copy,” Prine told Rolling Stone. “I’m thinking, ‘This is like a dream.’”
In 2009, Dylan told the Huffington Post, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene … nobody but Prine could write like that.”
4. He’s Been Married 3 Times and Didn’t Become a Father Until He was 48
Prine has been married three times. The first was to his high school sweetheart, Ann Carole Menaloscino, right after he was discharged from the U.S. Army. That ended in the mid-1970s, but inspired a lot of his work on his 1978 album Bruised Orange, according to the Washington Post. The second marriage was to his bass player, Rachel Peer, from 1984 to 1988, the break-up of which inspired his biggest album, The Missing Years.
But everything changed when he met his third wife, Fiona Whelan, at a gig after-party in Dublin in 1988. The two of them didn’t get married until 1993, when Fiona finally left Ireland for Nashville. They had kept in touch for years as she slowly decided whether this was the right thing to do.
“There were a lot of things stacked against us,” Fiona said later. “He was on the road and had been through two marriages.”
“I was a high risk,” Prine said.
Prine and Whelan welcomed son Jack in 1994 and son Tommy 10 months later, in 1995. Prine also adopted Fiona’s son, Jody, from a previous relationship.
“It put my feet right on the ground,” he told Rolling Stone about becoming a father. “I didn’t know that I was missing that until I found it. All of a sudden I felt normal with a capital N. I didn’t realize it, but it was something that I was striving for after years and years of being a total daydreamer.”
5. Prine Is a Cancer Survivor
In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on his neck and had to have a large amount of tissue removed, then he underwent six weeks of radiation therapy. He couldn’t perform for over a year and required quite a bit of speech therapy after the surgery severed a few nerves in his tongue and the radiation therapy damaged some of his salivary glands. It substantially altered his vocals, giving Prine’s voice a gravelly tone that was not previously there. In 2013, he had to have further surgery, this time to remove cancerous tumors in his lungs.
But Fiona told Rolling Stone that it all made Prine stronger, even if it was very hard on him.
“It sounds a little cliché, or Pollyannaish, but John and I don’t laugh at this: That neck is proof there is a God. That neck is the hand of God because it gave him more than was taken away. Not to say it wasn’t hard. It was very hard for him,” Fiona said, adding, “He wasn’t a PTA dad, but he did what he could.”