Mark Collie’s Alive at Brushy Mountain Arrives From Wilbanks Entertainment May 1

Previously Unreleased, Revelatory Album Captures Life Behind Prison Walls

Mark Collie’s album Alive At Brushy Mountain, recorded more than a decade ago inside the walls of Tennessee’s most notorious state prison, finally makes its full-force debut on May 1 via Wilbanks Entertainment.
On Oct. 17, 2001, Collie performed a sheaf of new original songs about crime and punishment – nearly all of them heard here for the first time – before an enthusiastic audience of inmates at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, the forbidding Eastern Tennessee facility that had numbered James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, among its hardcore prisoners. (The 113-year-old prison closed in 2009.)
“God gave me the opportunity to get in there and share something that might make a difference,” Collie says. “I believed the songs could matter,” he continues. “I thought that they could be important, and I wanted to share ‘em. I wanted to make something that people could find hope in, or redemption, or restoration, or forgiveness.”

For the occasion, Collie assembled a crack all-star band and enlisted Austin-based critics’ darling Kelly Willis, Country Star Shawn Camp, and blues legendClarence “Gatemouth” Brown as special guests. (In addition to filming the concert, film producerChris Zarpas and director Thom Oliphant joined Collie on multiple visits to the prison to document life inside the walls of Brushy Mountain as seen through the eyes of its inmates; the feature-length documentary has been restored for future release.)

By the time Mark Collie walked through Brushy Mountain’s gates, the Tennessee-born musician was an established country star with five studio albums – four of them for MCA Nashville – to his credit and the top 10 hits “Even the Man in the Moon is Crying” and “Born to Love You” under his belt.

The idea of recording an album at Brushy Mountain was born of Collie’s own experience. He says, “I’ve known people who’ve been in and out of there, friends of mine as well. Also, there was my relationship with and my inspiration by Johnny Cash, who was very encouraging and supportive of me as I worked through this project.”
Collie had become good friends with the late country luminary, and the young musician – who also has several screen acting credits — was in fact Cash’s first choice to portray him on the screen. (Collie gives an intense, uncanny performance as the young, tormented Cash in the 1998 short film I Still Miss Someone.)

It was Cash’s celebrated live albums recorded at California’s Folsom and San Quentin penitentiaries, and the impact an earlier San Quentin performance had on a young inmate named Merle Haggard, that spurred Collie to contemplate a prison recording of his own.

“Without Johnny going to San Quentin,” Collie says, “there might not have been a Merle Haggard. There were a lot of lives that were made better as a result of that music.”
Collie began writing his own cycle of prison songs. He debuted one of them, “Maybe Mexico,” in an impromptu performance before an audience of movie producers and filmmakers at Nashville’s Greens Grocery. Tony Brown, the famed country producer who was then head of MCA Nashville, was in the audience and promptly agreed to produce Alive at Brushy Mountain.
David Z, the L.A.-based musician-songwriter-producer who began his career with Prince’s band, signed on as co-producer. Says Collie, “Who better to record a live record than the guy who made what I think is the best sounding live record ever recorded, Purple Rain.”
From a wish list they assembled, the production team pulled together a top-flight crew of musicians, including guitarist Dave Grissom (John Mellencamp, Joe Ely), keyboardist Mike Utley (Jimmy Buffett, the Dixie Flyers), guitarist-mandolinist Tommy Burroughs (Memphis’ Riverbluff Clan), bassist Willie Weeks (the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, B.B. King), accordionist Hassel Tekkle (Kix Brooks) and drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Mark Knopfler), and Camp. Willis also supplied backup vocals on several numbers. The music embraces a breadth of American styles – country, blues, gospel, bluegrass, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The album is highlighted by the striking originals written or co-written by Collie – “Maybe Mexico,” “Rose Covered Garden,” “Second Chance,” “On the Day I Die,” “Dead Man Runs Before He Walks,” “Do As I Say,” and “Reckless Companions” – which contemplate the convict’s lot with compassion, keen detail, and sometimes boisterous humor. In homage to Cash, Collie also performs a storming version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” The album concludes with a rendition of the standard “Gospel Train” by Brushy Mountain’s inmate choir.
Collie had made an important statement and a career recording at Brushy Mountain. But he had no way of knowing that he had completed what would become one of the great lost albums of its day. Events conspired to keep Alive at Brushy Mountian off the market.
“The record was being finished, and changes at MCA were happening,” Collie remembers. “Tony Brown was leaving and there was nobody left who’d started the project. Basically, I was gone, and the record was, as they say, ‘in the can’.”
For almost 10 years, in a futile wrangle with record labels and film production companies, Collie tried without success to acquire the rights to Alive at Brushy Mountain. However, a chance meeting with Tim Wilbanks at a charity fundraiser in Alabama led to the formation of Wilbanks Entertainment, which is proudly giving the album the release it so richly deserves.
Collie views his work at the prison in spiritual terms, and sees Alive at Brushy Mountain as an example of the transformative force of music.
“I think that’s why God gave us song — the songs of David, the Song of Solomon. It’s a way for us to hear truths, and to allow that power of the song to help us, to teach us, to heal us, to restore us, and to bring us all closer together.
“Music saved my life. Having a guitar to play, having a way to express myself saved my life. And I know that there are a lot of guys – a lot better men than me – who made one misstep and wound up in places like Brushy Mountain. It didn’t have to be that way. If I can change one life with this work, it will all have been worth it.”


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