Mark Collie

Through the years there’s been a strong tradition of blues and country artists staging performances at American prisons. Johnny Cash and B.B. King -- to name just two -- released live “prison” performances that today are regarded as classics. While it’s too early to tell, country singer Mark Collie’s just-released album, Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, might one day occupy a spot among those elite recordings.

Culled from two performances staged in 2001 at Tennessee’s infamous penal institution (which was closed in 2009), Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary captures Collie and a Who’s Who of fellow artists delivering a potent mix of poignant country balladry, searing honky tonk and hard-driving rockabilly gems. Inspired by Cash (a close friend), Collie recruited a sensational band to help bring the project to life. In addition to the likes of Dave Grissom, Willie Weeks and Mike Utley, the performances include such high-profile guests as Kelly Willis, Shawn Camp and late great bluesman Gatemouth Brown.

It’s hard to imagine an artist better suited to have pulled off such a project. One of Nashville’s most respected songwriters, Collie has, in addition to his own chart successes, penned songs for Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Aaron Tippin, among others. He’s also an acclaimed actor whose work includes roles in the John Travolta film, The Punisher, and in the hit TV series, Nashville. Prior to the Brushy Creek performances, he wrote material specifically geared to the lives of inmates, and brought those songs to life on-stage.

Mark Collie

“I believed the songs could matter,” he says. “I wanted to make something that people could find hope in, or redemption, or restoration, or forgiveness.” Recently, we spoke with Collie about this remarkable project, his friendships with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and why his Gibson J-200 will always be his go-to guitar.

Fifteen years have passed you staged these shows. Do you have strong memories of those events?

It’s really the whole experience, from when I first began going up to Brushy. In the beginning it was just me and my guitar – and then a camera, to document the conversations. I think the first days I was up there, with my J-200 ringing out in those cell blocks, is what stays with me most. I could see how much joy it brought, and how the music seemed to matter at a greater level.

How soon afterwards did you stage the performances?

That was about a year later. In the beginning I didn’t have the support of the label -- it was just sort of my vision, or calling, to go there and do something. Later I received help from a lot of friends. To make a record conceptually was one thing, but to do a live album with guests, and with all the bells and whistles, and to capture it on film and document it … I didn’t think anyone would buy into that. Ultimately a lot of my friends and a lot of people within the prison system came through.

What’s it like being on-stage in that situation? Is it a different kind of warmth you feel coming back to you, from the audience?

The music really matters in a situation like that. From an emotional standpoint, it’s hard to explain. It’s a really good experience, and sometimes it’s a chilling experience. Ultimately it’s very joyful.

You wrote songs specifically pertinent to the lives of the inmates. I would imagine doing that takes you to a different level, thematically.

I try to approach songwriting strictly from what I know, or what I believe I know. And I try to put into that as much truth as possible. Even when I’m writing songs that are satirical, or entertaining, or funny -- there’s an honesty that has to be there. I had a lot of help with the songwriting. Bobby Taylor and Roger Cook wrote songs, and so did Shawn Camp. And of course there were things I wrote myself. Not all of them made the record, but yes, it does challenge you to really go to the heart of the truth that you’re trying to express. “On The Day I Die,” for instance, is as much about my testimony as it about the conversations I heard, from inmates.

You and Johnny Cash were friends. Did he have advice for you as you set out on this project?

Ultimately, taking on something like this has to be something you do from a place of your own. But I think the Lord deliberately put me in the presence of Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, in the early days of my career. I had a place in my heart for trying to see if we can’t better understand those who have fallen short, and made poor choices. Any of us could wind up in a situation like that – with one false step, or misstep. Getting to know Johnny, I came to understand what he did to help with regard to prison reform. A lot of what he did was never made public.

Can you elaborate?

We all know about those albums he recorded, and today, a lot more people know that Haggard was an inmate the first time Johnny played San Quentin. Merle shared with me how important John’s coming to the prison was -- how much it meant to him, and to other people there. I felt that if I could take my guitar, if nothing else, and go into Brushy and sit and visit and share, and really listen, then maybe I could help change one life for the better. Maybe the music could have an importance beyond radio, beyond chart positions. Maybe it could speak to a heart or soul that needed to hear something. Johnny Cash had a lot to do with that. It’s funny -- he and Waylon once told me to just be myself, and then I wouldn’t have to rehearse. Don’t follow trends, and you won’t go out of style.

Mark Collie

You assembled a great team and great guests. Were they all friends?

Most of them were. I guess I knew everybody onstage, and I had recorded with everyone except Kelly [Willis]. And of course I’ve written with Shawn. Actually I didn’t know Gatemouth, but I got to know him through [producer] Tony Brown. Tim McGraw was also part of the show, but those performances are still in the can. Some portions of his performances are featured in the film documentary – “The Mountain.” But ultimately there was a lot of great music, with a lot of effort put into it. I also had the best backup band I could ever hope to play with. Tony Brown had a lot to do with that. And the reason the record sounds as fabulous as it does is because of [co-producer] David Z’s expertise. And then the remastering is the work of Ray Kennedy.

Of course you played your Gibson J-200. Through the years, that guitar has become closely associated with you.

I remember being at a drive-in theater in Savannah, Tennessee, when I was seven or eight years old. I saw Elvis in the film, Loving You, and I wanted that guitar. I played a lot of different guitars when I was growing up, just learning. When I was fortunate enough to get signed in the late ‘80s, my manager, Don Light, was close with Chet Atkins. Don said, “Is there anything we can get you – something you especially want?” And I said, “A blonde Gibson J-200.” Don made a call, Chet called back, and the next thing you know, I had a blonde J-200. Since then, I’ve used it to write every song on every record. It’s my writing and performing and never-leave-home-without-it guitar.

So your current J-200 is the same one you got in the late ‘80s?

Yes, it is. It has a few scars and scuffs, but it’s the best-sounding guitar I’ve ever heard. I play it at every show and I record with it. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve wanted to buy it – players who are much better than I am – but it’s not for sale. Something else I’ll tell you: I’ve used this J-200 a lot, and done a couple of TV episodes and films that called for me to play. In some cases, that’s made the guitar more famous than any recognition that’s come my way. In The Punisher, with John Travolta and Tom Jane, I played a guitar-slinger-assassin, Harry Heck, from the Marvel Comic Book. Whenever I play a show where there are Punisher film fans, they all go, “That’s the guitar!” I love to hear them say that. It’s the same feeling I had when I saw Elvis with his J-200, all those years ago.

Do you see parallels between inhabiting a character on-screen and inhabiting a character in a song?

It’s all about expressing truth. There’s a lot I don’t understand about acting, but what I have come to understand is that you’re only as good as the lines you’re given to speak. Just as, in a song, you’re only as good as the lyric. You can sing a bad lyric beautifully, but it’s still a bad lyric. If you have a great script, you just need to stay out of the way of what makes it great. It’s just like interpreting a great song. For me, it all comes from the same place.

Has your life been changed permanently by your experiences at Brushy Mountain?

Absolutely. That’s held true from the first day I went up there. One thing I’ve learned: we can help bring music and art into those places, and we can try to create more unity and harmony through a healing process, and a learning process. But it’s even better if we can catch at-risk individuals really early in their lives. That’s an argument for getting music back into schools – having children hold hands and sing along in unison, and eventually in harmony. Music is part of who we are – it’s a gift and a powerful tool to use for good. Nothing unifies people or breaks down barriers more than music does.