Even the people who make your favorite pop culture have their own favorite pop culture. In Surprise Top Five, we ask them to list, off the cuff, their five favorites in a particular field of interest. They get no advance warning.
One of the founders of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ketch Secor has been blending old-time music with new-school sensibilities since the late ’90s. The group’s latest record, Remedy, is out now and includes not one but two songs about prison—“Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” and “The Warden”—each of which looks at jail from a different occupant’s perspective. Given Secor and company’s penchant for the big house, The A.V. Club thought it would be fun to ask him…
What are your top five favorite songs about prison?
1. Johnny Cash, “25 Minutes To Go”
Ketch Secor: The way “25 Minutes To Go” works is that, slowly, he moves his way from the cell to the electric chair through the course of the tune with all sorts of really dire predicaments. From “the preacher who’s going to save my soul,” and he has his last meal. Let’s call that one number five.
The A.V. Club: When did you first hear “25 Minutes To Go”?
KS: I heard it when I was a teenager. And, first of all, I really love it because he gets his numbers mixed up. He’s got three more minutes to go and then seven more minutes to go. It’s sort of bizarre hilarity.
Johnny Cash just seems like the authority on incarceration, but not only that, on death row. It’s like Johnny somehow gets ascribed as the master.
2. Vernon Dalhart, “The Prisoner’s Song”
KS: Now, that came out in 1928. That is the first country music million-selling album. Vernon Dalhart was actually not a country singer but an operatic star from Texas who changed his style to be more country because he realized he could sell more records to hillbillies than he could to classical types and buffs.
AVC: What’s that song about?
KS: It’s real nasally and piercing, and it’s a waltz. It’s about pity and remorse. It’s very floral. It’s as proper as you can get in the big house.
AVC: Why do you think it was the first big country record?
KS: The prison song has been the fascination of American popular music for the longest time. We all want to know what it’s like in the big house. I want to know what it’s like, so I’m writing songs about it and have since I was a kid. I’m writing about being in jail, about the things you do to wind up in jail. It’s funny that I would only get to jail recently in my life. But that’s another story.
3. Bob Dylan, “The Hurricane”
KS: [Sings.] “While Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell.” I really love this one ’cause you get to be in the cell with Rubin Carter. He’s falsely tried, charged with murder one. This is a true-story prison song in which Bob [Dylan] takes a certain number of liberties to tell the story of Rubin Carter, the boxer, and his incarceration. Bob wrote a lot of these—there’s “George Jackson,” too, another prison song—but I’m going to say that that’s got to be maybe my number three. Are we up to number three?
AVC: Yeah, we’re at number three.
KS: The thing I love about that prison song is that it’s got Scarlet Rivera wailing banshees and doing some shackled fiddle-playing, which just sounds like if you’d put a violin player into solitary confinement for years and years. That’s the kind of crying, whining, wailing—a bit brash, even irritating violin playing that I would expect to come from solitary.
4. Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home”
KS: Who better to sing a prison song, a liberation lullaby, than a man who actually spent time in the big house? A Bakersfield boy with Okie roots, born to be a thug. I bet half of his student body in his ninth-grade dropout class was bound for the pen as well. And Merle was not alone on his solemn walk towards confinement. He was part of a generation of hard-luck people in the valley in California at a time when the labor movement made it a little easier. Like the great Bob Dylan line, “Lot of people don’t got too much food on their table / But they got a lot of forks and knives / And they gotta cut something.”
AVC: Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash play while he was in jail.
KS: That’s right. Merle was sitting there in the big house watching Johnny Cash, probably banging a tin cup on a hard oak table and thinking, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here. I’m going to go do what that guy’s doing. I want to be an actor.”
One time Merle Haggard squeezed my neck and whispered something into my ear. And it still gives me goosebumps to hear it, because I can still hear it. I can still feel Merle’s breath up against my ear. It’s quite a feeling, Merle’s breath. We did a tour with him one time, and after sound check, he pulled me aside by the neck in that hard way. You know, you could feel his hands on you, and they’re kind but they’re strong. He pulled me close and he whispered in my ear, “Sounds good, son.”
I always like to be around cons. I like to be around vets. I like to be around stool-pushers and people worth singing country music about. It was really exciting to be around Merle that afternoon, and “Sing Me Back Home” has this beautiful lullaby to it. You can just see his gaze through the bars as he hopes to be free.
5. Lead Belly, “The Midnight Special”
KS: Now, the number one prison song of all time just came to me like a hot freight train rolling through a Louisiana night. It’s unquestionably “The Midnight Special” that rolled on down Angola Prison way. Huddie Ledbetter [a.k.a. Lead Belly] would stand up in the workhouse at night and listen to the sound of the train roll by and gaze upon that light and hope to be on board. I can’t imagine there’s a harder place in American history than Angola State Penitentiary in 1930, when Huddie Ledbetter was locked up for a double-murder. I’m not sure if it’s a folk song or if it’s a song that he composed, but to me, he is the source. Whether he heard it in prison or whether he wrote it in prison, it doesn’t really matter. The thing about prison songs is that it really doesn’t matter who wrote them. It’s about who listens to them and what they mean and what they can do and if they can loosen your cuffs just a little bit. That’s what I’m trying to do.
AVC: Is that something you consciously thought about when you were writing “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”?
KS: In that one, I’m just having fun with it. For me, there’s a lot of sex appeal. But as my wife pointed out, I spent the whole time describing the trailer and not the girl.
AVC: You didn’t write “The Warden,” right?
KS: Gill [Landry] wrote that one along with Felix Hatfield, and I love that song. I love to perform it. I was thinking about how it’s for the men behind the bars, but it’s from the perspective of the men who hold the keys and about the kind of prison that you’re in when you’re holding the keys, when another man’s fate is in your hands. It’s a strange circumstance. I’ll never forget when I was a kid, going to a slumber party at the warden’s house at the Staunton Correctional Facility. They lived inside at the big gate, but outside of another gate. There was a birdcage in the middle. This is an old prison; it’s probably been turned into condos with four-dollar coffee bars and yoga places. But anyway, Staunton Correctional Facility—or maybe it was called Augusta County Correctional Facility—had this slumber party going all night long, with search lights going on and occasional sirens, and we were playing baseball in the backyard at the warden’s house, which was actually in the pen.
Critter [Fuqua] and I used to go downtown, before they built the new judicial center in Harrisonburg, when we were kids. They had this prison that was right downtown, and you could walk right up through the alley and see the guys playing basketball. And then on weekends, Critter and I would go down and watch the families. They would sit on picnic tables. It was the kind of jail you’d go spend about six months tops before you either went somewhere much worse or came home. Anyhow, I’ve always been—probably in a voyeuristic sense—fascinated by and sought out those types of facilities. And every time I pass one on the roadside, I think about who’s inside them.
Just last weekend up in Kentucky, I was thinking about them. There was a woman who worked as an advocate for death row inmates who was at a concert of ours and told us how much she appreciated the music. Prisoners are easily forgotten, but they’re Americans. That’s your brother and your sister locked up in there. It’s your best friend from high school. It’s your neighbor. They’re real people. And I like to have a little fun with our songs, but the thing about “The Warden” is that it’s pretty hard-hitting and hopefully it’ll cause you to think a little harder about who’s on the other side and, really, what side of the cell you’re on.