More than 30 years after Johnny Cash's landmark Folsom Prison live album, recording artist Mark Collie has joined forces with country producer and MCA Records president Tony Brown, and pop/rock/blues producer David Z, to put together and document a live concert at Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Prison. This project has the potential to capture as much imagination as it does market, and re-inject some meaning into country music.
An all-star band, tentatively including Waddy Wachtel, Willie Weeks, Kenny Aronoff and Kelly Willis, would take a stage constructed by prisoners in the recreation yard of the Victorian-era correctional facility. Brushy Mountain is one of the oldest and most foreboding penal institutions in the U.S. and is surrounded by thousands of square miles of dense forest and craggy mountains. During David Z's first walk through the facility, the warden commented, “Once you get outside these walls, there's nothing but you and the snakes.”
Brown — who has produced numerous Platinum country acts, including Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, as well as some edgier artists, such as Steve Earle, David Z, Fine Young Cannibals and Johnny Lang — will co-produce a live recording of the prison concert, which is also being filmed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Koppel. In addition to the band, guest artists would also be lined up to appear, as will certain “lifer” inmates, who will be picked with input from the guards. “The guards know the inmates like brothers,” says Z. “They know which of these guys have talent, and there is talent behind those walls.”
The recording will be done by Kooster McAllister and his Record Plant Remote truck. The P.A. system will be designed and run by Hugh Johnson, an independent Nashville live sound engineer, who for the last 12 years has been the FOH mixer and production manager for recording artist Vince Gill.
McAllister and Z have worked together before, on a live Johnny Lang concert recording at Disney World in Orlando, but both say they've never approached anything like this before. “The place is unbelievably spooky,” says Z. Aside from the understandable frisson that comes with walking through the prison's daunting corridors, there are logistical concerns that neither of them has ever encountered before. “We had to figure out if we were going to be able to bring the truck all the way in, or just run a really long wire out to it,” says Z. McAllister adds, “It's a maximum-security prison, so everything that we need to do in any normal live concert recording situation is magnified by considering the security issues in every instance. It's a lot to think about.”
When Hugh Johnson did his walk-through of the prison with Z and McAllister in May, he made mental notes about rigging the P.A. system. “I figure I'll use the Sound Image carbon-fibre box, which is light and comes with its own flying hardware,” he says. “And I expect to hang the wedges off of the pipes that hold up the basketball goals in the prison yard. They look like they'll hold up.”
Collie is perhaps the perfect artist for this project. He has performed as an actor as well as a recording artist, and he portrayed Johnny Cash in a 10-minute short, I Still Miss Someone, which won an award at last year's New York Film Festival. “Not bad for a bunch of hillbillies makin' a movie,” he says, his voice a mixture of gravel and razor blades. And word has it that Cash hopes Collie will do it again when a movie of the Man in Black's autobiography is made.
“In doing my research for playing the role of Johnny Cash, I found that when he did his prison outreach program, one of the inmates [at the San Quentin concerts] was Merle Haggard. Merle credits that experience with turning his rage into a muse. Without that moment, we would not have had Merle. And without Merle, we would not have had artists like George Strait and the many, many others who were inspired by Merle Haggard.”
Collie says that, while the Brushy Mountain concert project has no political or social agenda, he hopes it may offer some inspiration to a few inmates. “It's obvious that the penal system in America is under a great deal of stress,” he says. “Obviously, if we're going to try to rehabilitate and reintroduce to society the fallen, we have to be aware of what they're trying to say to us. The recidivism rate at American prisons is 55 percent, which stinks. I think that music takes down the barriers to communication. I've already started interviewing some of the guys in the prison, and I'm learning that they can share things through song that can't be communicated through sworn testimony or humble confessional. If one truth is revealed, if one life is saved, then this is all worth it, 'cause there are songs that change minds and change lives.”
I expect to cover the concert when it takes place in October — the month was chosen because the prison has no air conditioning and August at Brushy Mountain can be hell on earth. It's not the kind of venue you really want the all-access backstage pass for, as Collie points out: “Gettin' in is the easy part. It's gettin' out that takes some doin'.”
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