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Between the Bars: 20 Great Songs About Prison

From Snoop’s murder case to Thin Lizzy’s escape and Johnny Cash’s blues

elvis presley jail

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The trials and tribulations of prison life have long been a fascination to musicians outside of the penitentiary walls. Whether it’s Johnny Cash shooting a man in Reno or Public Enemy looking for the fence, the fear of incarceration has haunted countless artists — but it also inspired them to write some killer songs. Fortunately for the rest of us, we can experience being behind bars vicariously thanks to television shows like Orange Is the New Black and Oz, films like The Shawshank Redemption, and the songs included here. From “Jailhouse Rock” and “Jailbreak” here are 20 of the biggest songs about the big house.

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Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl”

One of the creepiest songs ever, this is what a traditional Appalachian murder ballad sounds like being retold by an angelic brother duo. It starts innocently enough, with some guy by chance meeting a nice girl in Knoxville. By the second verse, things get dark: He beats her to death, throws her body in the river, comes home with bloodied clothes, has a nightmare, wakes up surrounded by the townspeople and is left to rot for life in a prison cell — all in the span of four minutes. While this song would even be taboo by today’s standards, keep in mind that the Louvins’ version of the track came out in 1956. 

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