California’s Folsom State Prison occupies a hallowed place in the history of country music. As the location of several Johnny Cash performances and the subject of his song “Folsom Prison Blues,” it has become a symbol of the “outlaw” element of outlaw country.
Now, some 60 years after Cash first put it on the map, the California State Prison complex has had a transformational impact on another country roots musician: Canada’s Linda McRae.
After answering a call to host a writing workshop at New Folsom in 2011, McRae and her husband, James Whitmire, were moved to develop similar workshops for at-risk youth – to try and prevent them from ending up behind bars in the first place.
Her new, Steve Dawson-produced album, Shadow Trails, is inspired by that work.
“Flowers of Appalachia” features a wistful, insightful poem by elderly New Folsom inmate Ken Blackburn set to a tender mostly-acoustic backdrop of banjo, guitars and bass.
“Sidewalk Princess,” inspired by another poem by a Folsom inmate, is the fictionalized account of a homeless woman in Vancouver.
And “Jesus or Jail” drew its inspiration from the film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” and the message McRae took away from it: If you’re poor in the south, you have two choices: Jesus or jail.
Other stand-out tracks on the album include “Why Can’t Waylon?” a fabulous outlaw country-style song that borrows an even more fabulous outlaw country –style utterance from the young son of McRae’s friend: “If Jesus can come back, why can’t Waylon?”
There’s also a stirring cover of Willie P. Bennett’s never-recorded number “When Love is a Game,” featuring beautiful pedal steel by Dawson.
And then there’s “Singing River,” which tells the story of Teh-la-nay of the Yuchi nation. The nation called the Tennessee River the singing river because they believed a woman who lived in the river sang to them. When the nation was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s, Teh-la-nay walked for five years to return because she missed hearing the river’s song.