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David Allan Coe

Penitentiary Blues – 2005 (HackTone)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by David Allan Coe

This 1969 debut was recorded shortly Coe's release from 20 years of off-and-mostly-on incarceration. The last stretch, three years at Marion, provided many of the images and experiences essayed here, as well as the attitudes and strategies that insulated Coe from relapse. Though recorded in Nashville, this is an outlaw blues album whose hard-time lyrics are sung as basic bar music with a lineup of guitar, bass, drums and harmonica.

Coe's prisoners are trapped between their oppressed prison lives and dreams of freedom; held in check by lock-up's drudgery and danger and only temporarily transported by their imaginations. The hallucinatory litany of last meals on "Death Row" could have been written by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, as could the hoodoo imagery of "Monkey David Wine" and "Conjer Man." More depressing is the rootless path back to prison found in "One Way Ticket to Nowhere."

This is a raw, emotional album, scratched out on the wall of a darkened cell and memorized across days in isolation. Finally back in print, the deluxe CD packaging includes a reproduction of the original die-cut album cover, newly penned liner notes from Colin Escott, and a frank lesson excerpted from Coe's self-published book "Ex-Convict."