In life, there are certain constants: death, taxes, and folk songs about prison being universally excellent.
Of course, the gold standard is “Folsom Prison Blues,” but I point to “The Warden” by Old Crow Medicine Show as proof that the tradition is alive and well in the modern day. In the subcategory of folk songs about bootlegging that are universally excellent, I’ll take “Bootlegger” by Diertrich Strausse, Redbird’s version of Dylan’s “Moonshiner,” and another Old Crow standout, “Bootlegger’s Boy.” Then there the classic murder ballads, none more haunting than “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and “Long Black Veil,” but with an eye towards modernity, the king is Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” and recent contributions that include Barnstar!’s “Barnstable Country,” local favorite “The Governor’s Wife,” by the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, and Josh Ritter’s aptly-titled “Folk Bloodbath. The Irish also their hat in the ring on all things crime and prison, and there are no shortage of sterling versions of “The Auld Triangle” or “Fields of Athenry,” and I suggest “The Wrong Company” by Flogging Molly as a particularly poignant example.
Stated simply, in folk music, the criminal is hollowed territory: criminal-ness is close to Godliness.
There is no better example of this then Ben Miller Band’s “Twinkle Toes,” a raucous, jovial bluegrass thumper that pulls at heaven, and gives an account from inside the iron bars of a jail cell. Despite its sound, it’s an admittedly bleak story, juxtaposing the song’s vibe with the reality of a penitentiary’s damnation, as Miller singing that “around [his] tombstone they’ll wrap their rounds in razor wire, so [his] soul can’t get back home to God,” and that “there’s no mercy past the gates of entry.”
“How can someone with a gun and Billy club skill some body that’s just trying to get back home?” he asks.
It’s a sympathetic look at a life sentence, with a keen eye towards heaven and a focus on faith, as Miller boils over, calling on “the horns of heaven [to] wreck the walls of prison, and tell these asshole to let my people go.”
Looking like a bluegrass-Connor McGregor, Miller is a bearded, mohawked, Missouri-native, backed by the ever-versatile Scott Leeper, who plays spoons, the washboard, and drums (among whatever else is around), and Smilin’ Bob Lewis, the elder statesmen, fit for a pair of overalls, building—then playing—the washtub bass. They are a recklessly exciting live act, with Miller singing through a standard mic microphone, then an old phone, as the band rotates around instruments all night long, with a sound ranging from the most traditional bluegrass to the grittiest of blues.
Off 2014’s Any Way, Shape, or Form, “Twinkle Toes” is at the cleaner end of their sound, a point of entry into a band that lists their genre as, “Who knows? Who cares?”
WATCH: “TWINKLE TOES” BY THE BEN MILLER BAND