Mark Collie - Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
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Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (Wilbanks, 2012)

Mark Collie

Reviewed by Michael Berick

In the early '90s, Mark Collie was a rising Nashville star. Part of the wave of Neo-Traditionalists like Mark Chesnutt and Neal McCoy (both of whom he refers to on this live album), Collie landed a couple of top 10 hits and made several albums for MCA. For whatever reasons, Collie slid pretty quickly off the radar after signing with Giant Records, where he released his last major studio album in 1995. "Alive At Bushy Mountain" should give Collie some well-deserved attention; however, it should have done that for him a decade ago. This live album, along with an accompanying (and still unreleased) documentary film, was made back in 2001. Unfortunately, when the album was finished, it wound up on the shelf due to circumstances like management changes at his label.

It is easy to have trepidations about an album sitting around for a decade. However, "Alive" is a totally compelling CD that shows no signs of aging. Outside of references to a then-still-living Johnny Cash and the presence of the now-late Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, it sounds like a recently recorded performance.

There's a rugged vitality to Collie's music that would be welcomed in today's Americana landscape. His "too rock for country, too for rock 'n' roll" sound bears some similarities to Steve Earle, whose career rise and fall preceded Collie's by a few years (although Earle has a quick and long lasting return).

For this "live in a prison" recording, Collie put together a set of songs that reflects the penitentiary location. There are tales of outlaws and scoundrels as well as ones dealing with misdeeds and redemption. Several songs were written specifically for this project: the colorful tale Maybe Mexico, the jail-set On The Day I Die and Dead Man Run Before He Walks and the rousing Reckless Companion, also the band's name.

The band, in fact, is notable too. Featuring the likes of guitarist Dave Grissom, keyboardist Mike Utley, multi-instrumentalist Tommy Burroughs, bassists Willie Weeks and drummer Chad Cromwell (all musicians with lengthy resumes), the Reckless Companions are equally adept churning out hard rocking country numbers (One More Second Chance) and gentler, more bluegrass-y ones (Rose Covered Garden). The concert also includes several special guests. Kelly Willis contributes two lovely solo turns (Heaven Bound and Got A Feelin' For Ya) and contributes vocals on other tunes. Shawn Camp is a featured band member while Brown comes out to play Someday My Luck Will Change.

Looming large over the whole show, however, is the legend of Cash. Any live prison album is a descendent of Cash's classic San Quentin and Folsom records and Collie openly acknowledges his debt to, and influence by, Cash (who Collie portrayed once in a short film). During the show, he mentions that he had asked Cash to be part of the concert; however, Cash wasn't well enough to participate. After asking the crowd to keep Cash "in your prayers," Collie delivers an affectionate and spirited version of Folsom Prison Blues.

While this live album, which Collie co-produced with then MCA executive Tony Brown and one-time Prince collaborator David Z, might not equal his hero's work, it is definitely a terrific effort that deserves to be heard. Collie is in excellent form here - rough-edged and energized - while performing gritty tunes that ring with truth. Hopefully the belated release will bring some of redemption that Collie sings about to himself as well.

CDs by Mark Collie

Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, 2012

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