Before country music lost its soul and moved to the suburbs, there existed a sub-genre of country music consisting of “prison songs” based on a myriad of bad decisions primarily having to do with whiskey, drugs, and women. These songs convey the pathos, hopelessness, and what Merle Haggard has called “the mental Hell that is jail.” There is an unbreakable bond between criminal misbehavior and “real” country music.
Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard are the most well-known of prison song troubadours, but before Cash and Haggard there was Vernon Dalhart, who took his name from two towns in Texas. In 1925, he recorded one of the most enduring prison tracks, “The Prisoner’s Song.”
I’ll be carried to the new jail tomorrow
Leaving my poor darling all alone
With the cold prison bars all around me
And my head on a pillow of stone.1
Jimmie Rogers, the man many consider the father of country music, wrote his version of the traditional folk song “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” in 1928. A cautionary tale to a friend, the song was most famously covered by Webb Pierce in the 1950s.
I had a friend named Campbell
Who liked to drink, gamble and ramble,
Well I told him once or twice
To quit playing cards and shooting dice
He’s in the jailhouse now.2
Hank Williams, Sr., was the first superstar of country music. While a master of heartbroken misery, Williams recorded few or no prison songs except “A Picture from Life’s Other Side.”
Just a picture from life’s other side
Someone has fell by the way
A life has gone out with the tide
That might have been happy someday.3
Among the most enduring of prison songs is “The Long Black Veil,” with the most famous version sung by Corsicana native Lefty Frizzell. (Corsicana is also the birthplace of Billy Joe Shaver, who was successfully defended by Dick DeGuerin in an aggravated assault trial in Waco a few years back. “I’m A Wacko from Waco” is a song Billie Joe wrote about his Waco experience.)
Frizzell’s “Veil” has been covered by well over 100 artists and continues to be the leading exponent of the tearjerker ballad of a man betrayed by a faithless woman.
Now the judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die
But I said not a word, although it meant my life,
Cause I’d been laying in the arms of my best friend’s wife.
Now the scaffold is high and eternity near
She stood there in the crowd and shed not one tear
But some sometimes at night, when the cold wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries o’er my bones.4
No discussion of prison songs would be complete without inclusion of the real deal—the late, great Johnny Paycheck. He had an arrest record ranging from aggravated assault to murder and knew much more than the average rap star about spending time in prison. Paycheck died penniless in 2003, his headstone having been paid for by country music legend George Jones.
Paycheck weighs in with the haunting and hair-raising “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill.”
I know you’ll excuse me if I say goodnight
I’ve got a promise to fulfill
Thank you for listening to my troubles
Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill.
I warned him not to try and take her from me
He laughed and said if I can, you know I will
So tonight when they get home I’ll be waiting
Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill.5
You know his life just took a wrong turn, perhaps because—as Paycheck advises in another song—he failed to “Stay off the Cocaine Train.”
Yeah, the old white train costs a lot to ride
And it’ll damn sure forevermore please your brain
Take a little advice, stay away from the cocaine train.6
While on the subject of drugs and their effect on prison songs, “Cocaine Blues,” written by T.J. “Red” Arnall and recorded by Johnny Cash on Live at San Quentin in 1969, is perhaps one of the prime examples of drug abuse and bad behavior.
Early one morning while making my rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went back home and I went to bed
And stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head
Early next morning I picked up my gun
I took a shot of cocaine and away I run
I made a good run but I ran too slow
They caught up with me down in Juárez, Mexico.
Of course, they drag our hero back home, where he is held by 12 honest men and of course, as with many jury trials, it does not work out so well.
In about five minutes in walked a man
Holding the verdict in his right hand
The verdict said in the first degree
I shouted lordy, lordy have mercy on me
The judge he smiled as he picked up his pen
99 years in that San Quentin pen
99 years there beneath that ground
I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.
Come on you rounders and listen to me
Lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.7
Cash had many jail songs—a lot of good ones—but in my opinion the best of the best is a short, relatively obscure song called “The Wall,” which tells the story of a prisoner who spends his time trying to figure a way to escape and finally tries to escape from the walls of prison.
Well a year’s gone by since he made his try
And I can still recall
How hard he tried and the way he died
But he never made that wall
He never made that wall
There’s never been a man who shook this can
But I know the man that tried
The newspapers said it was a jailbreak plan
But I know it was suicide,
I know it was suicide.8
The late Porter Waggoner, a genuine country music legend, and a true aficionado of the flashy clothes known as “nudie Suits,” had a couple of really nice prison songs, such as “The Green, Green Grass of Home” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” which is the story of a man who comes home from out of town early, stops to buy a bottle of champagne for his wife, and ends up inadvertently following his wife’s lover, also buying party supplies at the liquor store.
I left the store two steps behind the stranger
From there to my house his car stayed in sight
But it wasn’t till he turned into my drive that I learned
I was witnessing the cold hard facts of life.
I drove around the block till I was dizzy
Each time the noise came louder from within
And then I saw the bottle there beside me
And I drank a fifth of courage and walked in
Lord, you should’ve seen their frantic faces
They screamed and cried, please put away that knife
I guess I’ll go to hell or I’ll rot here in this cell
But who taught who the cold hard facts of life.9
Flatt and Scruggs, though primarily bluegrass artists, penned a wonderful song called “99 Years is Almost for Life,” which tells a story of not only bad choices but betrayal by both his woman and the presiding judge.
The courtroom was crowded the judge waited there
My mother was crying when I left my chair
The sentence were sharpful it cut like a knife
For ninety ninety-nine years boy is almost for life
I dreamed of the whistle I heard the bells ring
My sweetheart was coming some good news to bring
I knew that she loved me and that she’d be true
She said she would save me I’m guilty as you
She went for a pardon or else for parole
I know she’ll come back for she’s part of my soul
If she ever fails me I’d be mighty blue
(NOW, WAIT FOR IT.)
I just got a letter from Nashville town
And after I read it, my spirit broke down
It said that my sweetheart and the judge would be wed
And here in this jailhouse I wish I was dead.
No matter how right folks a man he may be
Bad company will sent him to prison like me
So take a good woman and make her your wife
For ninety-nine years boy is almost for life.10
Stonewall Jackson (his real name—no kidding) tells the sad, sad story of a man imprisoned for killing his best friend after a long night of drinking in “Life to Go.”
I went one night where the lights were bright just to see what I could see
I met up with an old friend who just thought the world of me
Well he bought me drinks and he took me to every honky tonk in town
But words were said and now he’s dead I just had to bring him down
Well it’s its been a long, long time now, since I’ve heard from my wife
I know I’d be there with her yet if I hadn’t used the knife
Well I’ll bet that little girl of mine don’t realize or know
That I’ve been here 18 years, and still have life to go
Yes I still have life to go.11
It is impossible to pick only one prison song from the repertoire of Merle Haggard. Haggard, who was in the audience when Cash played San Quentin, was doing time for a burglary of an open cafe. (I kid you not, look it up.) Haggard wrote some of the most iconic prison songs of all time, including “Branded Man,” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Mama Tried.” However, perhaps the most poignant of all his prison songs is “Sing Me Back Home,” which pays homage to a condemned prisoner’s last wish.
The warden led a prisoner, down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up, like all the rest to say goodbye.
And I hear him tell the warden, just before he left my cell
Let my guitar playing friend do my last request
Won’t you sing me back home, to the place I used to be
Make those old memories come alive
Sing me back home where I can hear my mama sing
Sing me back home before I die.12
While prison songs date back to the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, some notable exceptions to the trend away from real country (defined as “when you play a country record backwards, you get back your dog, your wife, and your trailer”) still exist.
Steve Earle, a passionate anti-death penalty advocate, penned a song for the movie Dead Man Walking, which portrays prison from another side, the guards working at Ellis Unit One, death row in Texas for many years. In “Ellis Unit One,” Earle vividly illustrates the effect death row has on one of the guards working there.
Well I’ve seen’ em fight like lions, boys
I’ve seen ’em go like lambs
And I’ve helped to drag ’em when they could not stand
And I’ve heard their mama’s cryin’, when they heard that big door slam
And I’ve seen the victim’s family holdin’ hands
Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs
And even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know he did his best
But he don’t live on Ellis Unit One.13
Marty Stuart, a man many consider the savior of traditional country music as well as having the coolest hair in country music, gives a 21st-century shout-out to Haggard in “Branded” and shows the cold, hard fact that a man never truly pays for his crime.
Well I’m branded, wherever I go
Trying to outrun a bad story everybody seems to know
Might as well be wearing a ball and chain
Cause everywhere I travel I see my picture
With a number by my name.14
Last but certainly not least, relative newcomer and another savior of traditional country music Jamey Johnson spins his cautionary tale of drug abuse in “The High Cost of Living.”
My whole life went through my head, layin’ in that motel bed
Watchin’ as the cops kicked in the door
I had a job and a piece of land, my sweet wife was my best friend
But I traded that for cocaine and a whore.
With my new found sobriety, I’ve got the time to sit and think
Of all the things I had, and threw away
This prison is much colder than
The one that I was locked up in just yesterday
My life is just an old routine, every day the same damn thing
Hell I can’t even tell if I’m alive
I tell you, the high cost of livin’
Ain’t nothin’ like the cost of livin’ high.15
Country music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I feel all of us who defend the citizen accused, the sick and imprisoned, can relate to some extent to the songs listed here. There are many among us who can personally relate to the effects of alcohol and substance abuse on our lives.
I suggest listening to good old-fashioned country music to reflect on your duties and to cure what ails you. If that does not work, the Texas Lawyer’s Assistance Program is a wonderful program that has helped many of us in the trenches.
- Vernon Dalhart/Shapiro, Bernstein and Co.
- Traditional—Public Domain
- Traditional—Public Domain
- Marijohn Wilkins and Danny Dill/Crown Music
- Aubrey Mayhew and Johnny Paycheck/Dream City Music
- Johnny Paycheck/publisher unknown
- T.J. “Red” Arnall/Unichappell Music, Inc
- Harlan Howard/Wilderness Music
- Bill Anderson/Johnny Bienstock Music and Sony/ATV Publishing
- Dave Evans/Sony (formerly Tree Publishing)
- George Jones/publisher unknown
- Merle Haggard/Tree Publishing
- Steve Earle/Primary Wave Music Public
- Marty Stuart/EMI Music
- Jamey Johnson and James Slater/EMI Music