Once you've ruled out the Grand Old Opry, it makes for an interesting debate what venue has seen the most country music talent. If, however, that concert hall is a prison, it's no contest: San Quentin. The sprawling penitentiary north of San Francisco holds the most men on death row anywhere in the country. And yet Johnny Cash played there in the '50s, while inmate Merle Haggard took notes from the audience. Cash performed regular gigs in San Quentin and went to record a legendary live album there in 1969.
Moving to more modern times, it was almost 10 years ago that the California (by way of Tasmania) songstress Audrey Auld held a series of songwriting workshops with the San Quentin population. This record is dedicated to, and fed, by the experience - five of the tracks were directly co-written by prisoners.
Whether you're a hardliner on crime or dyed-in-the-wool liberal, expect to be moved. Music takes on a different shape when it's made in a setting so cut off from light. The lyrics have sharp effect, aiming right at the heart of the freedom and humanity these men (a word that gets lost on prisoners) long to feel again.
Musically, Auld uses a full bag of tricks: Appalachian honky tonk (the title track), Nebraska-era Springsteen ("Hey Joe") or even the hip-hop accents of "Oh Love." Her natural-styled singing voice (even with the Australian accent poking through) hearkens to country singing ladies from the past, without a hint of studio magic. It works best when simplest, as with the standout acoustic arrangement of "I Am Now What I Have Done."
The biggest pitfall in a project like this lies in the stark material - will the darkness get to be too much? Not here - Auld mines joy in the memories of the inmates (like the taste of a mother's cooking or the dizzy feeling of being in love). She paints a picture of people cut off from things in the flesh, but fully alive in their spirit. Yet there's much to endure - "If these walls could talk," the inmates write, "They'd say tear me down."
Auld clearly identifies with the things the inmates carry: she is currently going through a serious series of cancer treatments. Don't miss the solo-written closer about that bout, "Sunshine," where she gorgeously connects a life that gets thrown off track to the rest of the web of life. Small moments can bring long consequences, but in the end, everything is temporary - it's an insight that might even bring peace to someone behind stone walls.