In 1998 John Prine was diagnosed with neck cancer, undergoing radiation treatment and physical therapy. Fifteen years later, he discovered he had cancer in his lungs, which was removed during surgery. He wrote this song about some of the things he's had to give up following his illness.
I'm gonna have a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's 9 miles long!
Prine told Uncut: "I wrote that song because I figure there's no cancer in heaven. So when I get up there, I'm going to have a cocktail and a cigarette that's 9 miles long. That's my idea of what heaven is like."
When Prine recorded "When I Get to Heaven" with producer Dave Cobb, he turned his studio into a party, with a throng of friends, family and fans singing along in the background. Cobb recalled to Uncut:
"He came up to me and said, 'You know what this song needs?' 'What, John?' 'Kazoos'! Oh boy. You can hear everybody having fun when they're singing along and all playing those kazoos. You can't help but laugh."
One of those kazoo players was Brandi Carlile, a longtime fan who had dropped by the studio on her way to the airport. She recalled. "We were just having a good time drinking, dancing and singing along, and I started the yodeling to make John laugh. I didn't know it would end up on the record!"