The Chillicothe Prison Project With Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard by Billy Don Burns: Gladiator With A Guitar
“The first time I went to the warden, Arthur Tate, of the maximum security prison,(C.C.I.) Chillicothe Correctional Institution, and asked him if I could come in and record an album on Johnny Paycheck, he told me there was no way I could bring a bunch of people inside the prison and record an album. I kept going back and became friends with Warden Tate. One night when we were drinking scotch at a lounge in Chillicothe, the warden told me that he would have to call the Governor of Ohio and get him to approve and if the governor approved the project, he would approve it also. When I told Johnny that the warden had given us the green light, Johnny told me to call Merle Haggard, that he would come help us. I didn’t have a number on Merle, but I had one on Biff Adams, who played drums with Merle. I called Biff, he said he would give Merle the message. Merle called me back, and said the only way he could do it was if I would send a private jet. He was playing Kansas City the night before we were to record, and had to be in Dallas the next night after we recorded in Chillicothe that day. It was worth it to get Merle there. I sent a Lear Jet for him. I took fifty -two people inside the prison. I had a band, and a bus, and a driver. I had a semi with two twenty- four track machines in the forty foot trailer, along with two engineers to operate them. I had a limo with a driver for Merle, and the three musicians he brought. I had a sound company, with a man to operate the mains for the out-front sound, and a man to run the monitors. I brought a video director with four cameras, and a crew to operate them. I brought an assistant producer to help me, and three or four roadies.
It was truly one of the greatest projects in the history of Country Music with Country Music’s most notorious outlaws, Johnny Paycheck, a triple platinum record selling artist, and the Mighty Merle Haggard. I produced the project, but Hank Cochran, who gave me the seventy thousand dollars that I spent that day, actually owned it. When I got back to Nashville, I had a lawsuit from Joel Katz of Atlanta, Georgia, representing Sony Records of New York City. Joel Katz was like the most powerful attorney in the business at the time. He was also Michael Jackson’s attorney.
I called Hank. I was excited that the “biggest guns in the business” were coming after me. I knew I was on to something big. Sony was suing me because I used Merle Haggard, who was under contract to them. It scared the hell out of Hank. His wife who hated me was against the project, and convinced him to shelf it. It never was released. It broke my heart. I got hold of Merle, and told him about the lawsuit. He said, “To hell with Sony, I will record for who I want.” Merle left the label, and they dropped the suit.
Hank still wouldn’t let me mix, and finish up the project. It was awesome. One of the top songs on the project was a tune I wrote called, “Chillicothe, You Got a Hold On Me.” I thought Merle’s best version of “Sing Me Back Home” was the version we did that day. He told the inmates that he wrote a lot of songs while he was in prison. If he could have sold them by the pound, they might have been worth a fortune, but then one day he wrote this song. He sang it so intensely, he had us all hanging on to every word. Then he did this simple ride on the Telecaster that was so great. It was like his knees buckled while he was doing it. It was truly his greatest version ever of “Sing Me Back Home “ in my opinion. I also recorded the Whitey Shaver classic, “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” as a duet with Johnny and Merle, and Merle wrote, and recorded a great song for the project, called “Inside the Walls”. So sad. R.I.P. Johnny And Merle.”
Billy Don Burns is a true Country Music Warrior. He wears his battle scars with honor, depicting the stories of his life in his songs with brutal and beautiful honesty. He’s respected far and wide for his long career in songwriting and performing, and he’s still out there. He’s traveled the world playing his music. He has played mostly clubs and smoke filled honky tonks and he has played thousands of them. He ‘s performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He unseated his hero, Country Music Icon Johnny Cash, who had been number one for fourteen weeks on the Gavin Americana charts and received a letter of congratulations from the Man in Black when he did. His songs have been record by many artists, including Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Johnny Paycheck and Sammy Kershaw. His new album is now available, Nights When I’m Sober: Portrait of a Honky Tonk Singer.