John Prine is widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters in the world. Since his debut in 1971, Prine laid the groundwork for most of the Americana music scene, influencing high profile acts like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Brandi Carlile. But his songwriting prowess goes beyond Americana. Artists from the world of country, rock, and blues have also listed him as an influence and many have recorded his songs in tribute. Here are seven of the best covers of John Prine songs ever recorded.
7. The Lemon Twigs- Fish and Whistle
Rockers The Lemon Twigs are known for their wide-ranging influences and their penchant for covering acts from a wide range of genres. During their 2017 hour, they showed their admiration for John Prine, who they have regularly listed as one of their favorite songwriters, by including his 1978 hit “Fish and Whistle” as a setlist frequent. The rare Prine cover outside of Americana or blues mixed with the introduction of Prine's music to a younger generation of fans earns The Lemon Twigs' version of “Fish and Whistle” an easy spot among the best.
6. Shakey Graves- Paradise
There's no John Prine song that has been sung more by other artists than “Paradise,” from his self-titled debut album. In part, this is because of Prine's habit of inviting his opening acts to join him on stage to sing the song. But there have also been some notable stand-alone covers. Arguably the best comes from Americana star Shakey Graves, who covered it for Ireland's Sunday Sessions series. While Prine's original is a wistful ode to a childhood lost both to time and aggressive mining, Shakey Graves' version is more melancholy in tone, causing the sense of loss to be felt even more strongly.
5. Johnny Cash- Sam Stone
Typically, if a country music god like Johnny Cash records a cover of your song, it's automatically going to be one of the best ever. But Cash's rendition of Prine's 1971 hit “Sam Stone” is polarizing among fans because of Cash's decision to replace the original line “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” with the less religiously controversial “daddy must have seen a lot back then, I suppose.” Prine has gone on record saying he didn't care for the change, but wasn't going to put up a fight if it meant Johnny Cash would record his song. Despite the changes, Cash, who was always a fan of songs about veterans, put his soul into his version of “Sam Stone” and brought it to a much wider audience.
4. My Morning Jacket- All the Best
Southern rockers My Morning Jacket have long been fans of John Prine. Prine and frontman Jim James have joined each other on stage numerous times. So it's no surprise when it came time to record a John Prine tribute album, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, My Morning Jacket chose not one of Prine's biggest commercial hits but a perennial setlist favorite, the breakup song “All the Best” from 1991's Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. Where Prine's version is wry, Jim James' ethereal voice and Carl Broemel's guitars give this cover a more airy feel.
3. Justin Vernon- That's the Way the World Goes 'Round
When as acclaimed a songwriter as Bon Iver's Justin Vernon not only covers one of your songs but calls you “my favorite songwriter” to preface it, that's one heck of a compliment. Vernon has covered a number of Prine album cuts, including “Bruised Orange” and “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” but it's his rendition of “That's the Way the World Goes 'Round” from the Folk Circle concert in Berlin that Vernon has listed as his favorite. It's a fairly straight-ahead cover, with no major changes in structure or tempo. But it's Vernon's voice, and the obvious love he has for the source material, that makes this one of the best.
2. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires- Clocks and Spoons
Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have both performed extensively with John Prine and have developed a close friendship with him. So when the pair co-billed an episode Austin City Limits, no one was shocked that they decided to cover a song from their friend and mentor. What was more surprising was their choice of material. Forgoing hits or even the fan favorites, Isbell and Shires performed deep cut “Clocks and Spoons” from Prine's 1972 Diamonds in the Rough. Watching two of the biggest names in Americana today not only use such a high profile platform to promote Prine's music, but to do so with a song even many casual John Prine fans haven't heard, feels like the kind of passing of the torch that as collaborative an artist an John Prine would appreciate.
1. Bonnie Raitt- Angel from Montgomery
There was never any doubt what the best John Prine cover had to be. Prine has influenced a lot of artists, but only one has ever covered his song and made it a bigger hit than he did. Several artists had taken a stab at “Angel from Montgomery,” from Prine's self-titled debut, including Carly Simon and John Denver, but it was blues singer Bonnie Raitt's soulful version on her 1974 album Streetlights that brought it to a wider audience. While not written for her, “Angel from Montgomery” is in many ways a better song fit for Raitt than Prine from go. It's written from a woman's perspective, and has a bluesy sadness that matched both Raitt's voice and her guitar work perfectly.