Concert preview: John Prine at the Ohio Theatre

Joel Oliphint
Photo by Danny Clinch

On “Illegal Smile,” the very first song on John Prine's self-titled debut album from 1971, the Illinois-born songwriter wakes up feeling bad. “A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down, and won,” Prine sings. But then he finds “the key to escape reality”: an illegal smile.

The song became a dope-smoking anthem, but in the liner notes of 1993 anthologyGreat Days, Prine confessed the tune had nothing to do with marijuana. “It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I've had this view of the world where I would find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at,” he said.

On new albumTree of Forgiveness, Prine, who comes to Columbus just before his 72nd birthday, is still grinning at things we're all worrying about. Like death. While “God Only Knows” finds Prine quoting the “Now I lay me down to sleep...” bedtime prayer, on the very next track, “When I Get to Heaven,” he treats death like a party. “I'm gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale/Yeah, I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long,” Prine endearingly croaks. At certain points in the song he ditches the grizzled singing all together and just uses his speaking voice. “I always will remember these words my daddy said,” Prine says, rapping a knuckle on his guitar to falsely signal a serious sentiment. “He said, ‘Buddy, when you're dead, you're a dead peckerhead.'”(Don't miss it)

Ohio Theatre

8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28

39 E. State St., Downtown


John Prine