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October 9, 2014 / Erik Ritland

An Anthem: John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”

by Erik Ritland

Rambling On is a seriously fun blog and podcast covering sports, music, culture, and more. Check us out on Twitter, Facebook, or at our website.

Originally published in January 2014 as part of Rambling On’s Daily Ramble series.

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Immortal lyrics from “Illegal Smile.” It wouldn’t kill anyone if you shaved your pits either, lady.

“Illegal Smile” by John Prine (click to listen)
Somehow I discovered John Prine only a few months ago. I had heard a few covers of his “Paradise,” which is my third favorite song of all-time, but I never went out of his way to listen to him.

I have a strange habit of buying CDs whenever I see them for sale. I do this because I know that there’ll be a time in the future when I can’t. So I bought a few at Barnes and Noble this fall and Prine’s self-titled debut was among them.

“Illegal Smile” is the leadoff track from what is now one of my favorite album discovery in years. It’s a song glorifying smoking weed, essentially, but it does it in a subtle way. Instead of beating you over the head with the message Prine instead winks and nudges, something he’s as good at doing as Warren Zevon:

When I woke up this morning things were looking bad
It seemed like total silence was the only friend I had
Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down – and won
It was 12 o’clock ‘fore I realized I was having no fun

Ah, but fortunately
I have the key to escape reality

And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No, I’m just trying to have me some fun

Yeah, maaaaan. This is the good sort of preaching. The bouncy feel fits the message and Prine’s fingerpicking is a highlight. Perhaps the most heralded songwriter of the ’70s, and deservedly so, he got his career started off on a good note with this one.

Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik’s music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.


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