Back in 2001 90s star Mark Collie recorded a live album at Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee for MCA. But Mark hadn’t managed a top 20 hit since 1994, and the departure from the label of its boss Tony Brown (who co-produced) meant this record was shelved for more than a decade. The artist has now regained control of the masters, and the album has been released – some years after the prison itself closed its doors. Production and sound engineering values are more or less studio-quality, and the band play well and enthusiastically.
There is a deliberate attempt to emulate Cash’s seminal prison albums, starting with the opening statement “Hello, I’m Mark Collie”, before the singer launches into rocking opener ‘One More Second Chance’ (co-written with 80s star T Graham Brown). Later on he throws in a cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, talking about a then-ailing Cash. Collie is not as distinctive or compelling a vocalist as Cash, but his rough-edged voice works well on the material he chooses here, most of it calculated to appeal to the audience in terms of the overarching theme of prison and criminality, and the devil-may-care but occasionally God-fearing attitude. Most of the songs were written by Mark especially for the project.
I liked the unrepentant prisoner’s confession ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’. The very good and rather amusing ‘Maybe Mexico’, written by the late Harley Allen with Deborah Nims, has the protagonist a fugitive from Memphis calling his lover while on the run and on his way south of the border.
‘Dead Man Runs Before He Walks’, written by Mark with the always interesting Shawn Camp (who also plays fiddle in the band), is a cheery piece about escaping from a not very secure sounding Death Row. The pretty sounding bluegrass ballad ‘Rose Covered Garden’, written by Mark with Roger Cook, is the story of a prisoner in Mexico who romances the gaoler’s daughter to get away, but ends up recaptured and alone. Collie revived this song for an obscure independent release in 2006, which is now hard to find.
The chugging ‘Do As I Say’ is a father’s wry advice not to copy his bad example in life.
Kelly Willis sings lead on the okay ‘Heaven Bound’ and the loungy ‘Got A Feelin’ For Ya’. I like her quirky voice (and she was clearly well received by the audience), but these songs are not particularly memorable. She also sings an effective harmony on a cover of Krisofferson’s ‘Why Me, Lord?’, which is very good.
‘On The Day I Die’ is a killer’s frank confession of his multitudinous past sins and his present faith, acknowledging before his execution,
I ran from the light like I ran from the law
But you know the wages of sin catches up with us all
This is a real highlight.
Not everything here is country. Blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown guests on his own ‘Someday My Luck Will Change’, while ‘Reckless Companions’ marries a folk feel to the lyrics with a rock sound, a combination which doesn’t quite work for me. They end with ‘Gospel Train’, a bluesy gospel number backed by the prison choir.
The thematic unity of this record is part of what makes it work but at times it all feels a little like pandering to the audience and trying too hard to copy Cash. Overall, though, the interesting songs and effective performances make it a worthwhile experience, and I am pleased it has made its belated way out of the vaults.