We presume that everyone in the world with an ounce of sense has copies of or knows about Johnny Cash’s prison albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin. They added an outlaw sense to Cash’s reputation, he seemed to be at one with the inmates. a jailbird made good ( although he never did time, just nights in the cells for drug busts and weirdly enough picking flowers). We mention this because the Cash albums are the template for this fine document, Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, an album recorded 12 ago but shelved after it was the victim of record label politics at MCA.
Country artist Mark Collie knew Cash and in the late nineties he decided to emulate the man in black with his own prison concert firmly believing in the power of song and hoping that he could inspire at least some of the inmates to reconsider their paths. Weaving his way through red tape he eventually pitched up at Tennessee’s toughest jail in October 2011 with a stellar band and guests, the results of which are finally unveiled here. It’s a glorious recording and while the songs don’t have the familiarity that Cash’s songs had when he played his gigs they have a full bodied band feel to them with Collie and crew pitching country, rock, blues and gospel songs with energy to burn. The Reckless Companions include Willie Weeks on bass, David Grissom, guitar, Chad Cromwell, drums, Shawn Camp and Mike Utley, keyboards, all seasoned veterans who have played with the likes of the stones, Clapton, Joe Ely, John Mellencamp, Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson so not your average pick up band. In addition Collie brought up the venerable bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown who delivers the solid Someday My Luck Will Change along with some tasty guitar licks and Kelly Willis (imagine the audience’s reaction) who offers two songs, the sparkling Heaven Bound and the chuck Prophet written Got A Feelin’ For Ya which she delivers with a blowsy abandon, God knows why there wasn’t a riot.
Collie and the band deliver the goods throughout the album as he raps with the inmates and then launches into songs he wrote with the gig in mind. They’re hard luck tales, songs of redemption and ruin bolstered by gutsy playing. On The Day I Die is a death row epic where Collie sings “In the morning they’ll come and I’ll break my last bread and the preacher will read while they’re shaving my head” Dead Man Runs Before He Walks is a prison escape song which draws an energetic response from the inmates while the opening lines of I Could’ve Gone Right, “Twenty third birthday I picked up a gun, this time to get my dope I had to kill someone” is a sucker punch for the captive audience. The band deliver Doug Sahm type Texas tales (Maybe Mexico), country laments (Rose Covered Garden) and hard driving rock (Reckless Companions) with equal aplomb and it’s exciting to listen to these down the line. A cover of Folsom Prison Blues that brims with energy caps it all.
A worthy companion to the Cash discs this is a vibrant and ultimately uplifting listen and if there’s anything criminal about it it’s the fact that Collie had to wait over a decade to see it realised.