There’s a reason why prison songs have such a long and illustrious tradition in country music. A stay in jail represents the ultimate secular example of Christianity’s dance with sin and redemption: you are admitted because you have done something wrong, punished until you acknowledge your errors, and finally released, supposedly purified of the impulses that made you do wrong in the first place. The fact that prisons are also awash with members of the clergy – from rehabilitation programs to the last rites before execution – only cements the metaphor.
But in reality, the parallels between prison and purgatory are not so clean-cut…and that’s what makes jail songs so interesting. Sometimes prison life can be unnecessarily cruel. Sometimes the wrong man is convicted. That sense of ambivalence – those harsh discrepancies between punishment by man and by God – are always rife for exploration, it seems; whether by Johnny Cash’s series of live-in-prison albums or by Jailhouse Religion, the seventh and latest release by Charlotte, North Carolina’s David Childers & The Modern Don Juans.
Childers knows how to write a prison song…in fact, that skill might even come a little too easily. The first real barnstormer on the record, Jailhouse Religion‘s title track, is a literal prayer for deliverance over insistent alt-country riffage, and frankly it doesn’t add a whole lot to the tradition; the only salvation to be found here is in the Modern Don Juans’ musical chops, a perfect balance of power and control. Elsewhere, however, not even Childers’ band can save him from his own cliche-peddling. “Strayaway Child” contains the all-too-familiar line “I roll through the world in a beat-up Ford” with only capable-but-generic-backing, and if for an instant you start to suspect that there’s actually a Hank Williams, Jr. CD in your player, then I can’t really blame you.
So yes, the lyrics are a little less than staggeringly original. And yes, the Don Juans can occasionally sound more like John Cougar Mellencamp’s tour band than superior country-rockers like the Reigning Sound. But when David Childers is on, he’s on; and fortunately, he happens to be on more often than not. Those themes of sin and redemption, so often given life in songs about prison, are here better served in their more abstract incarnations. There’s the regretful country-soul ballad “Bottom of My Bottle,” for instance: a song about alcoholism which manages to transcend its timeworn subject matter with both breathtaking honesty and heartfelt lyrics, two things “Jailhouse Religion” struggled to muster. And then there’s the album’s real tour-de-force, “George Wallace.” I’ll be the first to admit that a ballad about Alabama’s infamous segregationist governor is likely to raise some eyebrows – especially when said ballad utterly refuses to demonize its subject. But Childers nails it, portraying a truly conflicted man with enough sensitivity and evenhandedness to challenge even the most culturally evolved of listeners to see this reviled historical figure as a human being. The fact that the Don Juans manage to sneak a quote from “Dixie” into the guitar solo doesn’t exactly hurt, either.
Jailhouse Religion lives up to its title, then, not with a literal procession of prison songs, but with an exploration of the prisons we make for ourselves. Of course, these themes aren’t exactly new to country music, either; but they’re more successful for Childers because they seem closer to his heart. It’s an oft-repeated maxim about jail music that the people who write it usually never set foot in a cell; even Mr. “Folsom Prison Blues” himself only got there for concert performances and one-night drunk and disorderly charges. And while I don’t know anything about David Childers’ criminal record, I can say that there’s a good chance he’s never served time either. Fortunately, for the bulk of his new album, that doesn’t matter: very few of us have been to prison, but we’ve all had fatal flaws to overcome, personal demons to grapple with. That’s the real jailhouse religion. And as far as I’m concerned, Childers & The Modern Don Juans handle it like pros.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.