The Evolution of Angel from Montgomery

The Evolution of Angel from Montgomery

Angel from Montgomery is a cherished song among many music fans. 

Numerous artists have covered the hit. But one very talented female singer specifically stands out. Some may even think of it as a song she wrote, but it isn’t. 

We’re digging into how Angel from Montgomery has evolved over the last 50 years. 

Let’s take a look!

Who Originally Wrote Angel from Montgomery?

John Prine, the beloved bluegrass singer and songwriter, wrote Angel from Montgomery in 1971. He was 25 at the time. 

Prine was born on October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago. 

Prine’s early life didn’t center around playing music, unlike other legendary musicians. However, he developed a musical interest in his early teens. He got his first guitar at 14 and learned to play from his brother, David.

While still in high school, Prine attended classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. This school is known for producing talented musicians who have become well-known in the music world. Notable attendees include Roger McGuinn from The Byrds, Steve Goodman, and Fred Holstein. 

After graduating from Proviso East High School, he worked as a mailman for five years in Chicago. During this time, he attended open-mic nights at Chicago’s Fifth Peg Bar. Prine performed songs he’d often written in his head while working his mail route. 

Movie critic Roger Ebert, a Chicago local, heard Prine at one of these open-mics. Ebert wrote John Prine’s first review in the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to him as a great songwriter. 

He went on to write, “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

This review would mark the beginning of John Prine’s rise in the Chicago folk music scene. 

Rising to Fame

Singer Kris Kristofferson saw Prine perform in early 1971. He was so impressed that he invited John to open for him at a gig in New York City. John Wexler from Atlantic Records attended this show and signed Prine to his first recording contract the next day.

John Prine’s self-titled debut album, released in October 1971, included Angel from Montgomery. 

During his career, Prine recorded 17 more studio albums, including five live performance albums. 

Throughout Prine’s five-decade-long musical career, he was nominated for 14 Grammy Awards and won four. And in 2019, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

In 1998, John Prine started having health problems. He was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on his neck, which required radiation and surgery to remove the cells. The radiation damaged his salivary glands, and the surgery resulted in severed nerves to his tongue. 

After a year-long recovery, including speech therapy, he was able to perform, although with a greatly-altered voice. Then in 2013, John had to have surgery to remove cancer found in his left lung. Six months after the procedure, he was back on the road touring again. 

A Great Loss

John Prine was not an easy man to take down. But sadly, in April 2020, John passed away at the age of 73. His contribution to music will never be forgotten. Five singers have covered Angel from Montgomery since Prine’s death, including country music singer Wynonna.

How Did John Prine Create Angel from Montgomery?

Many of John Prine’s songs feature characters going through difficult life experiences. John would sing his songs in the first person, regardless of the gender, the person happened to be. 

In 1971, Prine’s friend Eddie Holstein suggested writing a song about an older person. John felt the subject was too similar to another number he wrote, Hello In There. So he opted to write about a middle-aged woman instead. 

In describing how he came up with the song, Prine said he had an idea of “a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is…She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything.”

In the lyrics, the character describes her life, married to a man who doesn’t fulfill her dreams and is generally unhappy. 

The chorus exudes a deep longing for another life, away from the drudgery of her current situation:

Make me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster
Of an old rodeo

Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this livin'
Is just a hard way to go

Who Covered Angel from Montgomery?

Since that first recording, Angel from Montgomery has been covered 70 times. The most well-known cover version is from beloved singer Bonnie Raitt. She recorded the song to include on her 1974 album Streetlights

In addition to the studio version, Raitt has performed the song numerous times live. Including occasional duets with John Prine, who was a significant influence on Raitt from the first time she heard his music. 

When Prine received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Grammy Awards Ceremony, Bonnie Raitt performed the song in his honor. Raitt had this to say from the stage that night, “John Prine, who is sitting right over there, wrote ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and so many other songs that changed my life,”

In 2016, Raitt performed Angel from Montgomery with Jackson Browne at the Standing Rock Benefit Concert, Stand in Solidarity. Bonnie dedicated the song to all the female water protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. We feel it was the most soulful and emotionally-charged version of the hit.

John Denver, Carly Simon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Susan Tedeschi, and Tanya Tucker are just a few well-known musicians in addition to Raitt who have covered this legendary song. 

Angel from Montgomery’s Evolution…

Went from John Prine’s concept idea to a signature song for Bonnie Raitt. While Bonnie is known for other beautiful tunes, Angel from Montgomery stands out as one of her best. 

Sometimes artists cover a song so well that it seems to have always been one of their own. That’s the case with Angel from Montgomery. We have John Prine to thank for creating it and Bonnie Raitt for keeping it alive well after Prine passed on.

Who did your favorite version of Angel from Montgomery? Was it Bonnie Raitt or someone else?

2 responses to “The Evolution of Angel from Montgomery”

  1. I love the story of Steve Goodman getting Kristopherson to come hear John play an entire set in an empty club.

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