How An Inmate At Franklin’s Old Jail Inspired a Country Hit

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Last week we posted the story of how the Franklin Theatre barely escaped being shut down for good.

This is a post about a building in downtown Franklin that died long ago.

What the Franklin Heritage Foundation calls the “Old, Old Jail,” on 112 Bridge Street in downtown Franklin was a Williamson County Jail from 1941-1970.

In 2012 the Heritage Foundation bought the jail, which fell into disuse and repair and by 2008 was about to be sold by the city and demolished. Within the next month or so, the Heritage Foundation will make it their permanent home.

A lot has been written about their multi-year, $2.3 million restoration of the building, which is on the National Historic Register, and how a place of local history is going to also be the seat of an organization that honors local history.

But while buildings and places are parts of history, people make it.

Willie York at one time was one of the jail’s prisoners. Some true country-music historians might remember a song from 1970, by Johnny Seay, called “Willie’s Drunk and Nellie’s Dyin’.”

Seay wrote it about his older neighbor in the back-hills of Franklin, and it was a big enough hit that LIFE magazine sent a writer to do a profile of the man who inspired the lyrics, convicted murderer Willie York.

The LIFE story starts:”Willie is a convicted murderer who served 11 1/2 years in prison for killing a Franklin constable. He is a hard case alcoholic, a sometime moonshiner, a habitual motor vehicle scofflaw, a welfare pensioner, an illiterate who can barely scrawl his own name. He is a 59 year old
man knotted and gimped by a lifetime of malnutrition, bad whisky and the accumulated miseries of sleeping off his drunks out in the wet and cold . . .”

Seay, looking for a quieter, calmer place to live than Nashville, had moved to a ranch by Big East Fork creek in Franklin in 1967. His neighbor turned out to be York, living “with his terminally ill wife in squalor with a passel of dependent grandchildren back in the hills near Franklin, Tenn.”

York, the song goes, and his brother served 11 1/2 years in a “Nashville prison cell for killing a Deputy Sheriff in the Williamson County Jail.”

Old Jail

This is just one of so many stories that were huge news everyone heard and talked about. But now they are all but lost, or forgotten. The Big House for Historic Preservation that the old jail is being turned into, opening to operation in the next few months, is all about honoring the past and remembering things that before too long no one alive will have memories of.

“It is amazing that each little building in our town embodies so many local stories,” said Mary Pearce, executive director for the Heritage Foundation. “And this one is no exception.”

Old Old Jail Begins Transformation into Big House for Historic Preservation


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