For many, “Angel From Montgomery” was one of the songs that best captured John Prine’s unparalleled ability to write poignant lyrics about old people while he was still young, and about women when he wasn’t even one.
Released on his self-titled debut album in 1971, Prine earned notoriety as a songwriter through “Angel from Montgomery.” The song was so powerful and compelling that many other artists recorded their own versions of it, including Carly Simon featuring James Taylor, John Denver, Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, and Dave Matthews Band, among others.
The Story Behind John Prine’s Unforgettable Song
John Prine wrote “Angel from Montgomery” after his friend suggested writing “another song about old people” – he was referring to Prine’s song “Hello in There.” But Prine thought otherwise as he had “said everything I wanted to in ‘Hello in There.'”
Still, Prine, who was then a letter carrier in his 20s and wrote songs during his breaks from his day job, was inspired by the suggestion. “I thought for a while and said, ‘How ’bout a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is?'” he told writer Paul Zollo in an interview for the book “More Songwriters on Songwriting” released in 2016.
He recalled his friend not being interested, but the idea stuck with Prine. By the time he got home later that evening, an image had sprouted out of his mind. “I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands. She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from all this,” he said.
With that, Prine started working on the song, and he already knew exactly what’s going to be the opening line:
“I am an old woman named after my mother. My old man is another child that’s grown old. If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire. This old house would have burnt down a long time ago. Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo.”
Then, Prine further revealed that he just “let the character write the song.”
“Once I’ve got an outline, a sketch in my mind, of who the person was, then I figure I’d better let them speak for themselves,” he revealed. “Rather than me saying, ‘Hey, so here’s a middle-aged woman. She feels she’s much older.’ It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.”
Now you might be wondering why Prine has chosen Montgomery of all places? Well, Prine believed that it was by virtue of being a big fan of Hank Williams, who had ties to that city, that made him likely drawn to Montgomery as the song’s setting. “Angel from Montgomery” later became a concert staple of Hank Williams’ granddaughter, Holly Williams.
Watch John Prine’s classic performance of “Angel From Montgomery” in the video below.