In the early 1890s, coal miners began a war against the use of convict labor in the mines of eastern Tennessee. They burned down coal company buildings and fought the state militia. On several occasions they liberated convict laborers from stockades and sent them toward freedom on trains. The miners won the battle when the Tennessee legislature banned the use of convict labor in private industry. But they lost the war. Brushy Mountain State Prison was built with convict labor north of Knoxville in 1896 so coal could be mined on the premises by inmates.
In 2001, country singer Mark Collie played a concert at Brushy Mountain with an all-star band that included guitarist Dave Grissom, bassist Willie Weeks, multi-instrumentalist Sean Camp, singer Kelly Willis and bluesman Gatemouth Brown. The tape of that concert languished for years until it was finally released in 2012 by Wilbanks Entertainment as Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
The ghost of Johnny Cash’s 1968 breakthrough, Live at Folsom Prison, hovers heavily over Alive at Brushy Mountain, as even the introductions are similar. Collie mimics Cash’s iconic greeting, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash,” with “Hello, I’m Mark Collie.”
Both albums are filled with tales of crime and punishment. Collie’s “Could’ve Gone Right” effectively updates Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and death row is never far away. On Collie’s disc there’s “Heaven Bound” and “On The Day I Die,” on Cash’s there’s “25 Minutes to Go,” “Green Green Grass of Home,” “Long Black Veil,” and “Joe Bean.”
Both singers display an easy empathy which eliminates the distance between themselves and their captive audience. That’s striking in light of the current lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality in which even our children have become public enemies. In the Folsom liner notes, Cash describes his “feelings of kinship” with the prisoners and concludes by saying “the convicts are all brothers of mine.” Collie told Peter Cooper in the Nashville Tennessean that “[I was] trying to create a situation where there might be a guy who said, ‘Somebody cared enough to come in here and sing a song and try to tell me that they understood me.’” Collie added that “Some of these songs are as much about me as they are about the men…I had my own prison, my own chains I had to shed.
Despite the racialized atmosphere of prison, Cash and Collie both played to mixed audiences. “This was such a delicacy,” former Folsom inmate Millard Dedmon says in the liner notes to the 2003 boxed-set reissue of Live at Folsom Prison, “and such a good thing to have anyone come in. And it doesn’t matter whether he’s a white boy with a country music band or whether he was a black boy with a blues band.” Collie’s concert concludes with a spirited version of “Gospel Train” by the integrated Brushy Mountain Prison Choir.
Both men worked with convict musical artists. On Live at Folsom, Cash performs “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley (upon Sherley’s release, he toured with Cash). Collie made several visits to Brushy Mountain before the concert where he worked on music with inmates, some of whom are now free and working as professional musician
For all the similarities between Cash and Collie, there are differences. Live at Folsom Prison was a gigantic hit and career boost for Cash, while Alive at Brushy Mountain has barely been noticed. All the music is country but it represents two distinct styles. Cash’s backup band, the Tennessee Three, was a minimalist group which created a trademark groove and stuck with it. Collie exhorted his much bigger band, The Reckless Companions, with the war cry of “Let’s rock the rock, Brushy Mountain!” And that’s what they did. While Luther Perkins, Cash’s guitarist, didn’t solo much, Collie’s reckless companion Dave Grissom shreds with a fierceness that mirrors prison life. Cash’s version of “Folsom Prison Blues” moves along at almost a stately pace, much like the train which informs the lyrics (“I bet there's rich folks eating from a fancy dining car/They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars”). Collie’s cover of the song is like a jet fighter strafing that train.
Johnny Cash was a prison reform activist, driven by his conviction that “I just don’t think that prisons do any good.” He agitated for fundamental change in the prison system in interviews, on his television show, and in the halls of Congress, where he brought ex-cons with him to testify. On the other hand, Mark Collie is an artist who was active at one prison. The two share a similar spirit but there’s a generation gap’s worth of history between them.
In the documentary which is part of the Live at Folsom Prison boxed set, former Folsom guard Jim Brown said of that late 60s era: “You have good people who screwed up. You do your time, you get out. Everybody can have a good life, get out and get a good job.” In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.”
That proposal went nowhere and the result of that mistake was summed up by Bestor Cram, the director of the Folsom documentary: “The prevalent attitude for the last thirty years has essentially been punishment, not correction or rehabilitation, in spite of all the scholarly research suggesting how misguided that approach is.”
Michelle Alexander’s 2010 instant classic The New Jim Crow provides the details: An increase of several hundred per cent in police and prison budgets. Massive job loss. 2.7 million Americans behind bars and millions more on probation or parole. Houses and cars confiscated from citizens who are never charged with a crime. The stock of private prison corporations traded on Wall Street. Eighty per cent of defendants indigent and unable to hire a lawyer.
Merle Haggard, a convict in the audience the first time Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin, could have been reviewing Alexander’s book when he said: “We know America is set up where if you get a break in life, if you have an education, if you have money, then all that America is supposed to be is at your fingertips. If you’re a guy who’s been to jail and has none of these things that I mentioned then America isn’t real, it’s hypocritical.”
Frustrated by the glacial pace of reform, by the mid-1970s Cash had stopped playing prisons shows. This was an early indication that celebrity activism doesn’t work. Better models for change are the Tennessee coal miners of the 1890s. Not that we should storm the prisons, but the miners point us toward building on the work of musicians who have embraced prisoners and then aiming higher toward eliminating the prison-industrial complex altogether.
If celebrities can’t make that happen, who can? We should draw inspiration from the millions of people in the streets for the immigration marches of 2006 and an Occupy movement that has exploded around the globe. The numbers for a similar response to the incarceration epidemic are there: Over seven million Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system and each of them has families and friends. Not to mention all those personally affected by the way that swollen prison budgets have directly siphoned money away from public housing and drug treatment programs.
Since Nashville has abandoned the prison song and the major labels have censored lyrics about the police, where would that movement’s music come from? In Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece, Michael Streissguth writes of Folsom’s creative ferment: “An artistic beehive where many inmates painted, sculpted, or wrote poetry, Folsom’s cavernous halls also rang with music. Prisoners blew trumpets, beat drums, sang in choirs, creating jazz, gospel, and, of course, country and western.”
The main change in that scenario is that today we lock up a lot more musicians. That means a lot more of them are getting out every day. They have stories to tell, much like the ones in the songs of Mark Collie and Johnny Cash.
Rock & Rap Confidential / 2012