may 2012

Mark Collie: Good to have him back, on any terms

Return of the Hillbilly Hitman

By David McGee

Mark Collie & His Reckless Companions
Wilbanks Entertainment

It’s been almost seven years since any new music from Mark “The Hillbilly Hitman” Collie last surfaced, with 2006’s impressive acoustic album, Rose Covered Garden. Salvaged from the dustbin of history after sitting in the can in the MCA Nashville vaults since 2001, Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, inspired by a certain famous prison album recorded by Collie’s friend and mentor Johnny Cash, captures this underrated singer-songwriter (and actor) on a peak night before a truly captive and highly appreciative audience, accompanied by a stellar band of Reckless Companions including David Grissom (guitar), Willie Weeks (bass), Mike Utley (keyboards), Shawn Camp (acoustic guitar/fiddle/vocals), Tommy Burroughs (electric guitar/mandolin/vocals), Chad Cromwell (drums) and Hassle Teakle (accordion), along with special guests Kelly Willis and the now-deceased Gatemouth Brown, both making memorable appearances.

Mark Collie, ‘Even the Man in the Moon is Crying,’ his career launching 1992 hit, one of the great country singles of the ‘90s. This performance took place at the Blue Note Fund benefit concert held March 16, 2011 at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The material, much of it by Collie himself, is uniformly strong and mostly centered on prison or fugitive life. Collie’s lived-in, rugged baritone is the ideal vehicle for giving those songs the extra heft of verisimilitude, as he demonstrates from the git-go. The album opener, “One More Second Chance,” drives and stomps as Burroughs’s electric guitar snakes through the arrangement. Collie delivers the urgency of a man begging his lover for yet another shot at making good with the same conviction he brings to testifying to his own wayward ways in the fiery “I Could’ve Gone Right,” a honky tonkin’ piledriver about a convict’s tortured reflections on his execution night. Always a popular spot for convicts and fugitives, Mexico figures in a couple of memorable numbers, notably the spirited “Maybe Mexico,” with southwest/south of the border ambiance to burn thanks to Shawn Camp’s lively fiddling, Utley’s frisky piano and Burroughs’s twanging guitar, with Kelly Willis adding a delicious harmony vocal—which she follows with a spectacular solo turn on a sorrowful breakup number of her own devising, “Heaven Bound,” replete with captivating harmonies and a piercing ache in the verses supplied by her keening vocal. She follows her original tune with a gem from the redoubtable team of Dan Penn and Chuch Prophet, “Got a Feelin’ for Ya,” a low-key yet strong affirmation of one partner’s enduring love for another, notwithstanding the gal’s fiery temperament (“I might bark and get a little loud…might run you ‘round in circles, make you dizzy in the head/I might run you ragged once or twice, forget to get you fed, but hold on tight, let it roll right over you…”) in a beautifully measured vocal finely balanced between starry-eyed affection and acute self-awareness. Later in the set Collie introduces the Texas blues giant Gatemouth Brown, who offers a slow, plaintive hope for a fresh start, “Someday My Luck Will Change,” certainly timely in this context, and blessed to boot with a pungent Gatemouth guitar solo and a colorful, multi-textured blues organ howl by Utley.

Vintage Mark Collie: ‘Something With a Ring To It,’ a co-write with Aaron Tippin later recorded by Garth Brooks.

As effective and affecting as Willis and Gatemouth are, it’s still Collie’s night. He and Shawn Camp get it going on “Dead Man Runs Before He Walks,” a co-write about a convict’s desperate escape attempt (“with a fork and a knife and a Dixie cup”), highly atmospheric thanks to Collie’s spot-on evocation of the convict’s single-minded pursuit as Burroughs’s evocative mandolin shadows the earnest vocal. His rugged “Do As I Say” has a Waylon Jennings feel about it and Collie delivers it with some Waylon swagger in recounting how if he had followed his dad’s advice instead of dad’s example he might not be in the pickle he’s in now. Given the influence Johnny Cash had in his life and on his music, Collie tips his hat to the Man in Black by including his own bustling version of “Folsom Prison Blues” and freeing Grissom to craft a spitfire guitar solo immediately following Burroughs’s own tough solo. “Reckless Companions” burns with the intensity of Copperhead Road-The Hard Way-era Steve Earle in its wailing guitars and exhortations to fellow outlaws (“my brothers of the winds”) to stay the course even as he has to pay the price for his misdeeds. A rousing gospel tune, “Gospel Train,” closes the album with a passionately declaimed rendering by the Brushy Mountain Prison Choir, whose numbers include an unidentified but powerful husky voiced lead singer driving the song home—a fitting, uplifting signoff for a night of songs centered on a multitude of human failings and the price being paid for straying from the straight and narrow. Whatever its fate eleven years after the fact of its being recorded, Alive at Brushy Mountain State Prison shows Mark Collie at his best—an engaging onstage presence, a first-rate writer, an affecting singer and a generous master of ceremonies. It’s good to have him back, on any terms.

Mark Collie’s Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is available as an mp3 download at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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