Sometimes, artists will refer to an album project as being a “long time in the making.” For Mark Collie’s latest album, “Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary,” that expression proves true. “Alive” dates back more than ten years, to October 17, 2001.
Collie, who enjoyed hits in the mid to late-1990s with hits like “Born To Love You” and “Let Her Go,” reflected to Billboard about what led him to record the project.
“It’s a project that I started thinking about and writing the songs for over a decade ago,” he said. “I wanted to go to Brushy Mountain to try to make a difference with some music. I would go there and do some interviews and sing in the prison yard and cell blocks. I would try to listen and share some hope with them.”
Collie added, “When I was blessed to get to know Johnny (Cash) and June (Carter Cash), one of the things that would always move me was when he would talk about the prison works that he did. Merle Haggard was in the crowd at San Quentin, and he made quite the difference after turning his rage to music. I thought how important that moment had been.”
With producer Tony Brown on board, everything appeared to be on track, until changes took place at the label. “I got a call one day that Tony was leaving MCA, and Bruce Hinton was resigning, and suddenly my support group was gone from the label. The record was shelved, and we started out trying to figure what to do with it. I continued to believe that this music was worth being heard and was important. I prayed about it, and finally, I met Tim Wilbanks at a fund-raiser in Muscle Shoals. We started having some conversations, and he said ‘I think that I see this vision, and maybe we could make this happen.”
Collie calls the songs “honest and real, and as much about me as the inmates that I’ve talked to. They are about redemption and restoration, God and life.”
When asked about the recording experience at the now-closed prison? “Some of them weren’t crazy about us being there. But, I think the songs changed that. It was an unusually intense experience in the yard. I was doing a song called ‘A Dead Man Runs Before He Walks,’ and the response was great — everyone was singing along. One of the guards came up to me, and said ‘Warden Mills wanted to know if you could not do as many ‘escape from prison songs.’ So, I was asked to alter my set, but the songs were what they were, unfortunately, and I was going to sing them anyway.”
The album also contains vocal cameos from Shawn Camp, Gatemouth Brown, the Brushy Mountain Prison Choir, and Kelly Willis. Collie says that Willis received quite the reception. “They were glad to see her, more than me. What a brave and courageous young woman to take this gig. She walked up there, and began to sing. One of the guys on the front row began to shake. He was being moved, and he actually fainted in the front row. He was fine, but she knocked him off his feet, as they say. She’s one of my favorite talents, and I was glad to have her along!”
Collie is eager to get out and play his new music for the fans. “We’re going to get the band cranked back up, and I’m headed out on the road. We’re going to play the record out for the people, and I am so excited for them to hear this music. Hopefully, we can change some lives.”