5 Artists Who Covered John Prine Songs and Made Them Their Own
BY JIM BEVIGLIA
September 20, 2023
Bette Midler Sings John Prine
Hello In There
John Prine’s reputation as a songwriter is unmatched, especially when it comes to the respect he earned from his peers. Even before the public truly got wind of what he could do, people like Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan were singing his praises to anyone who could listen. Because he tended to be somewhat of a minimalist when it came to recording his songs, relying instead on the charisma generated by his vocals, Prine’s work was ripe for cover versions. Below are five times when artists found ways of interpreting this legend’s songs and doing proper justice to the wonderful words and lyrics provided by John Prine.
“Sam Stone” by Swamp Dogg (1972)
Prine’s 1971 debut album featured several songs that would become classics of the singer-songwriter genre, with “Sam Stone” the one that gained him his widest exposure upon its release. The chilling tale was one of the first times that an artist in any medium had looked at US soldiers who came home from the Vietnam War, as Prine noted how the mental and physical toll of the war continued to accompany them in their civilian life. Other artists recognized in the title character people they knew and loved who were going through similar calamities. Jerry Williams Jr., whose powerful vocals are matched only by the eccentricities he brings to his recordings and performances as his alter ego Swamp Dogg, tore through a soulful vocal when he released his version of the song just a year after the original appeared. Whereas Prine told the story in his typical deadpan and let the audience draw conclusions, Williams belted out the lyrics. His voice practically shaking with the injustice of it all, Swamp Dogg delivered a showstopper of a take.
“Hello in There” by Bette Midler (1972)
Fried Eggs/Hello In There – Bette Midler – Live At Last
Mister D: Sorry, not sorry, but I had to include this live version of Bette weaving this Fried Egg intro into Prine’s elegiac ode to the loneliness of growing old and alone. It’s genius with it’s threading of humor, heart, and pathos into 8 minutes of bliss.
One of the things that immediately set Prine apart from his peers was his ability to tackle topics that most others wouldn’t consider. In the case of “Hello in There,” he wrote a moving treatise on the place of the elderly in a society that tends to overlook them. When Prine sang the song, his naturally croaky voice made it easy to believe that he was someone with hollow ancient eyes. When Bette Midler released her debut album, 1972’s The Divine Miss M, most of the material she chose was a bit long in the tooth, going as far back as 1941 for “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” “Hello in There” was her one choice from a modern singer-songwriter, and it fits in seamlessly. Midler turned it into a torch song (complete with piano flourishes from Barry Manilow, who was then her bandleader), and takes the wife’s role in the song. It’s a beautiful interpretation that proves how malleable Prine’s work can be.
“Angel from Montgomery” by Bonnie Raitt (1974)
I am an old woman, Prine barks out with his signature croak at the beginning of this song off his self-titled debut. Writing from the perspective of another gender was something that a lot of songwriters wouldn’t have tried, but Prine didn’t think twice about it. Perhaps he also knew that it might broaden the pool of potential artists who could do a cover. Sure enough, Bonnie Raitt gave the song a go on her 1974 album Streetlights. Although she wasn’t the first artist to cover “Angel from Montgomery” and she would be far from the last, Raitt’s version of the song stands as the definitive take. The narrator in Prine’s version came off as a bit ornery. But the naturally bluesy lilt in Raitt’s voice takes the song in another direction. When she complains about the lack of communication between her and her husband, you can hear the anguish that has caused her. In the same way, you can detect her longing and regret when she mentions the cowboy she once loved, the one who might have taken her away from the domestic boredom now engulfing her.
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” by Justin Vernon (2010)
If it feels like this song has a lived-in vibe to it, well, that’s because Prine did live it, at least the first verse. As a young boy in Illinois doing chores for the local church, he witnessed the commotion early one morning when a local boy was hit and killed by a commuter train. Prine then used that experience as a jumping-off point to a meditation on how negative emotions can come to consume a life if one’s not careful about it. Justin Vernon’s version was the leadoff track on the 2010 tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, which is a treasure trove of excellent Prine covers. Whereas his work with Bon Iver has often tended to the experimental, he largely plays this one straight. What Vernon does bring to the table is his knack for multi-tracking his voice into unique self-harmonies, a technique which, when applied here, makes a song that was already haunting at the start a mesmerizing marvel.
“Far from Me” by Justin Townes Earle (2010)
Here’s another one from Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows. Prine’s original take is one of the prettiest and most underrated songs of his career. “Far from Me” features a narrator who can see the end of a relationship coming in all the telling details of his girlfriend’s actions. In his version, he leans into the punch lines a little bit, playing it for some humor. Earle loses the rhythm just a bit, keeping the song from getting too ponderous. Other than that, he mostly sticks to what the original was trying to do. And yet the natural ache in Earle’s voice subtly transforms the song. When Prine sang “Far from Me,” you got the sense that this character might be OK after a little bit of grieving. But the Earle take on the song makes you feel like this guy is going to be haunted by the memories of this sad little night for a long time to come.