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Country Music’s Mark Collie Helps Prisoners Find Freedom in Song

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

God can use anything and anyone to achieve His purposes.  Acclaimed country singer Mark Collie is a prime example of this.  Known for writing hit songs for Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw, as well as carving out a nice singing and acting career for himself, Collie has been on an incredible journey since the release of his Alive at Brushy Mountain album in 2012.

Following the example of recording inside prison walls set by Johnny Cash on Folsom Prison Blues; Collie recorded and released Alive from Brushy Mountain out of obedience to God.  That album has led to a new project, one that he never dreamed.  He is now taking music therapy into Tennessee state prisons as part of a larger initiative to aid in the rehabilitation of inmates. 

Teaming up with Corizon Health as their music therapy ambassador, Collie is working with that organization’s behavioral health team to integrate music into group counseling sessions in two Tennessee correctional facilities.

I recently spoke to Mark to discuss his new role as a music therapy ambassador, how a song can bring freedom to anyone, and how God is using him in this badly needed area of ministry.

God has a great sense of humor doesn’t he? You have had a successful career in country music. I bet you never thought you would be working with prison inmates through music therapy?

It’s amazing sometimes how the Lord can have a plan when we obviously don’t see the big picture.  When I took my guitar to Brushy Mountain Penitentiary I never thought it would evolve into something much bigger.  I never could have seen this.  After I completed the album and the corresponding documentary film never did I realize what great stories would come back about how lives were made better.  It’s good to know that this project helped some lives get turned around.  I’m proud to have been a part of that.  The Lord has a great way of using us during certain times despite our vision.  He has a far greater one.

Fifteen or 16 years ago I wasn’t prepared to accept this sort of a challenge.  It took a long time because I went through a real rediscovery of myself, my faith, and my understanding of it.  I had a lot of healing to do.  I wasn’t ready and I see that now.  I wasn’t prepared then.  In fact, if God had shown me the complete picture I would say well, that’s a great calling but do I have any other options?  I’m so blessed now because I get to see first hand how a song can matter, how it can communicate, and how it can lead us into a greater understanding of each other.  I always loved going to church as a kid because of the singing.  It’s a beautiful thing and I just give God the glory for it.  The Lord knows what He is doing even when I don’t.

Corizon had seen an article in The Tennessean about one of the guys that I had come to know who was an inmate at Brushy Mountain.  His name is Andy and he had a great story about how he had gotten out of prison after being in there a long time.  He had started his own business and I was very proud of that.  So, Corizon asked that I come and share my story with their group.  I thought it was a great opportunity to share what I had learned and hopefully help somebody else.

What can tell me specifically about this health initiative you are involved in?  It is a 10-week music program focusing on inmates?

It’s a pilot program.  Basically, what we are trying to do is bring music therapy to individuals who have PTSD, high stress, and addiction.  I’m also just trying to help them to communicate better.  The program is basically structured to help aid the mental well-being of the inmates.  Many of them are getting ready to transition back into society.  In many cases, they are transitioning back into the reality of what has happened to them.   I know that music is important because it can be used as therapy inside or outside of prison walls.  I personally, learn something every day.  One thing that I have learned is that when you bring a song into a room and you bring the joy of a song, it can connect us.  The equation changes.  Communication begins.  For those few minutes a song can take you anywhere you want to go.  There is freedom in that moment.  And freedom brings hope and healing. 

So, even though these people are incarcerated they can find freedom through songwriting?

Oh yeah.  They can find it just in the joy and fellowship of singing together.  It naturally creates communication.  David (from the Old Testament) played and sang music because God knew that we needed it. 

What’s really powerful is that music seems to have it’s own special language that crosses all boundaries or any situation to work its way into the heart of virtually any person.  Do you agree?

As a child, I had a few traumatic instances that song and music helped me.  For whatever reason, I was led to write down my feelings in songs.  I always say that a guitar saved my life and I mean that.  Of course, Jesus had a lot to do with me getting that guitar and writing songs.  I want to give Him the first praise and glory now and always.  I just know that it (music therapy) works.  I can see it happening on the faces of individuals.  When you see a smile from an individual who hasn’t smiled in a long time, that is God working through the song.

You have been meeting with these individuals for several weeks now.  Have any good songs come forth in the process from these inmates?

Some days are great.  This week for example, several guys came and had written just some incredibly great music.  This is infectious because the entire group was anxious for me to hear the songs they had written.  They had already shared them with one another.  That creates a communication of fellowship that wasn’t there when we started.  These songs are important.  And sometimes there will be a guy who is very “gangster”.  And there are some who say they don’t believe in God.  My response is well, you know, I do believe in God and I know Him personally.  If you would like to meet Him I can introduce you.  I’m really there to first gain their respect and confidence that they can be free to say anything they want to. Recently, there were several guys who were writing songs that were really dark and revealing.  And this week I had a couple of those same guys who I asked if they could write a song about anything what would they write about?  They said Jesus.  That was beautiful to me.

What is your greatest hope for this initiative?  What would the ultimate outcome of this program be for you?

I would like to see that if we can show how that songs or music can help be the answer for everyone and if not the answer can at least be helpful to everyone.  I believe in music.  I believe in the power of music.  I believe that music is here for us to use.  I just hope it can be used to make people better and that more people will share songs in this way.  I’m certainly not the only one doing this but I do believe we can do more with music therapy.  That is my hope.

I believe you can find your way to the Cross through a song.  We see it every day in church, in revival, in your car, and even in a prison.  I am just very humbled and blessed to be part of this effort.

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