35 Years Ago: The Forgotten Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck Prison Album

Prison albums comprise some of the most legendary releases in country music history. Most every true country music fan knows about Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison from 1968, and At San Quentin from 1969, both of which helped revitalize Cash’s career, and are considered two of the best country music albums of all time.

Cash wasn’t the only one to play prison concerts or record prison albums though. Freddy Fender, Sonny James, Linda Ronstadt, Roy Clark, Glen Shirley, Dallas Moore, and others have recorded or participated in prison albums as well. You can read about some of them HERE.

But arguably one of the best prison albums in the history of country music was recorded 35 years ago today, June 13th, 1989. It included multiple major stars, and improbable story of how it all came together, and original songs or versions of songs never heard or recorded anywhere else. But despite a big budget audio production and camera crew being involved, and plans to make it into a television special as well, it was never officially released.

It was supposed to have been called Inside The Walls, and it was recorded at the Chillicothe State Prison in Ohio, with former California prison inmate Merle Haggard acting as the guest of honor, and Johnny Paycheck as the host. The reason Paycheck was hosting is because he was an inmate in Chillicothe at the time after being sentenced to 7 1/2 years for shooting a man and grazing him with the bullet during a bar fight.

On December 19th, 1985, a 47-year-old Johnny Paycheck was spending the holidays with his sick and elderly mother in his hometown of Greenfield, Ohio, when he decided to drive to nearby Hillsboro to hang out at the North High Lounge. An argument and altercation ensued between Paycheck and a 37-year-old man named Larry Wise. Words were exchanged, and Paycheck eventually produced a .22 caliber pistol, fired upon Wise, and barely missing his skull according to doctors.

Paycheck spent the next many years fighting the charges, claiming self-defense. But in 1989, his potential legal remedies had given out, and he reported to the Chillicothe State Prison. At the time, Paycheck’s manager was fellow country artist and songwriter Billy Don Burns. As soon as Paycheck was shipped to Chillicothe, Billy Don started leaning on the warden of the prison to allow him to record an album from inside the prison. It took 15 meetings, but eventually the warden relented.

Johnny Paycheck told Billy Don Burns that if he asked Merle Haggard to be a part of the album, he would. Billy Don didn’t know Haggard at the time, but did know Haggard’s drummer, Butch Adams. Butch put Burns in touch with Merle, and Merle agreed. But to make it work, Haggard said he required a Leer jet. The day before the proposed concert, Haggard was scheduled to perform in Kansas City, and after the concert he had a gig in Dallas. So Billy Don Burns arranged for a private jet to fly Haggard to and fro.

If they were going to do this prison concert, they were going to do it right. Billy Don was now acting as the official producer of the album and the special, and arranged to have two mobile 24-track recording machines in the back of a tractor trailer on the premises with 14 rolls of 2-inch tape, as well as four Beta cameras set up to capture the whole event live with Neal James as director. In total, 52 people were on the crew, and the production costs came to $75,000, which in 1989, was quite a hefty price tag.

So to bank roll the whole thing, Burns reached out and involved yet another country music legend, songwriter Hank Cochran. Burns explained the whole thing to Cochran, and he came on board as basically a money man/executive producer. It’s worth noting that the whole experience is really what put Billy Don Burns on the country music map, introduced him to other country legends, and gave him the country music “Outlaw” cred he still enjoys today.

“I know that this was one of the greatest events ever captured in recording history,” Billy Don Burns told the Take Country Back blog back in 2003. “I don’t even know why it was me that was chosen to capture it, but it was me. It seemed like everyone in the industry was offended I did the project. It was like ‘who is this guy? Hell, he don’t deserve a project of this magnitude.‘ “

As for the show itself, by all accounts it was spectacular. They actually played two shows to make sure enough stuff was captured. According to Burns, Merle Haggard played the greatest version of his song “Sing Me Back Home” of his career. Haggard also sang the song “Inside These Walls,” which Merle wrote on the way to the concert, and his performance at the Chillicothe prison is the only known version of the song.

As for Johnny Paycheck, they allowed him to change out of his prison clothes and wear proper stage attire for the show, and he sang all his classics: “She’s All I Got,” “I’m The Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised),” and of course he finished with “Take This Job and Shove It.” Paycheck also performed two songs written by his producer Billy Don Burns, two by a fellow inmate he’d befriended named Elmo Lincoln, as well as “Jailhouse Rock,” “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” by Whitey Shafer, and “Will I Be Free When I’m Free” by Hank Cochran.

To make the whole event even more frenetic, apparently there was an attempted escape that happened during the concert. The prison went on lock down as two men went missing, eventually to be found laying on top of a building.

After the concert, Billy Don Burns took all the footage and audio back to Nashville and began to put it together for the album and special. Burns was working on some rough mixes on the tracks when Hank Cochran decided to put the project on ice and shelve it. Why exactly has never been officially revealed, but one of the greatest country music prison albums ever recorded has never officially seen the light of day.

Making matters even worse, according to Billy Don Burns producer/friend Aaron Rodgers, the recordings “were actually given to ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement at some point in time, and unfortunately the masters burned when his house burned down.”

The one bit of good news is that some of the Beta tapes survived, and some of the footage from the concert has emerged on YouTube over the years (see below).

As for Paycheck, after serving 22 months of his 7 1/2-years sentence, he was pardoned by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, and was able to restart his career. Paycheck and the people around him give his prison stint credit for him getting his life back on track. By 1997, the notoriously stuffy and judgemental Grand Ole Opry even made Paycheck an official member.

Johnny Paycheck passed away in 2003 at the age of 64, with his Inside The Walls album and special still unreleased.

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