Nearly two years after serving a short jail sentence for narcotics and weapons possession, Steve Earle headed back to the slammer. It was the summer of 1996, and Earle — who’d been spending much of his time as a free man in the recording studio, completing two of his best albums to date — was honoring one of the conditions of his parole, which required him to perform at a Tennessee prison.
He chose the Cold Creek Correctional Facility, bringing along his revamped road band — including his brother-in-law, Mark Stuart, as well as the Copperhead Road rhythm section of drummer Kurt Custer and bassist Kelly Looney — for the show. When the group arrived, the prisoners had just gotten out of a two-day lockdown. Tensions were high and people were rowdy. Earle responded by dishing out pieces of jailbird advice to the convicts in the audience (“Walk slow, drink lots of water, sleep as much as you can and try to do your own time, you know what I’m saying?”) and lacing into an hour-long set of blue-collar ball-busters like “Copperhead Road” and “The Devil’s Right Hand,” whose tales of law-breaking southern men probably sounded all too familiar to the crowd.
I Feel Alright had been released earlier that year, rooted in a sound that bridged the gap between the stripped-down acoustics of Earle’s first post-prison release, Train a Comin’, and the guitar-driven punch of albums like Copperhead Road. Earle and company leaned heavily on I Feel Alright for the Cold Creek performance, even lifting a lyric from the title track — “I’ve been through hell and now I’m back again” — for Hell and Back Again, an MTV special that documented the prison gig and aired the following month.
Decades later, Hell and Back still stands as one of the best documents of Earle’s return to the music industry. He was barely 40 years old at the time, sharpened by sobriety and fueled by the need to prove that the muse — not the smack — was responsible for his output. In the video above, he kicks off the prison show with “I Feel Alright,” a song that celebrates the light at the end of darker tunnels.