My long-awaited prison concert date was on May 19th. Nestled in the northeastern-most corner of Tennessee, about three hours drive from home, was my destination -- a maximum-security prison, housing some 1,000+ inmates. I'd begun inquiring in June of 2006 about performing in east Tennessee prisons, starting my quest with headquarters in Nashville, then contacting the individual facilities. The Mountain City complex is the only one that responded favorably; in fact, one of the locations didn't respond at all. One day in August, 2006, a letter arrived at my home from the NECX chaplain, asking for a demo of my music and for more information about me. A few weeks after I mailed him a CD, he contacted me again and said that he doesn't have a CD player because CDs aren't allowed in the facillity (because they could be broken to be used as weapons); he said that he can play cassette tapes on a tape player he borrows from one of the inmates. I recorded the contents of the CD onto a cassette and sent it to him. He was enthused and said he'd be letting me know soon if he can let me in. When I didn't hear further for several months, I called him, figuring the concept had been tabled, but, instead, was told that he had been out following a heart attack. After he returned to work, he e-mailed me requesting a formal letter of intent, including what I planned to say to the audience in-between songs, and telling me, in detail, about security procedures to expect. Shortly after I sent him the requested letter, he called me with the news that I had clearance for a concert date. I was elated!
Why did this mean so much to me? Several of the people I'd told about my mission asked me why I'd want to do such a thing; actually a few of them sort of rolled their eyes up toward their foreheads and in toward their noses. I could reply (and did) that I've volunteered on behalf of every other demographic group ... children, animals, elderly ... and didn't want to overlook this shunned and largely forgotten part of humanity -- and that is very true. While writing my life memoirs, though, over a period of about six months this past year (a majorly liberating endeavor for me), a profound realization worked its way to the surface of my mind ... and I knew it was time to acknowledge it, shine light on it. If any of you do read my memoirs, you'll find parts that will astonish, amaze, and amuse and you will also find a shocking section about my brother, my only sibling. To condense the topic at hand to a few sentences here, he was very abusive to my mother, father, and me from the time he was 13 or so up until his death at age 40, when he was violently murdered in California by a 19-year old man who had met him only one time. A spiritual though non-religious person, I had prayed almost every night during the previous two or three years for "my brother to be taken" so that my family could know some peace. I guess I figured his lifestyle might produce a fatal illness, accident, or heart attack. I've always sensed that the young man factored into the picture, somehow, as a result of my heavenward beseechings. In a very real sense, my relief became his burden. He went to prison, of course. I could have avoided telling all of this and just said that my motives exist out of compassion for the men in prisons, who committed a horrific crime during their raging testosterone years (teens, 20s) and while under the influence of drugs -- and who are truly sorry -- and that they need to feel some personal worth while serving their sentences, particularly if they will someday be released into society. But I wanted to honestly and completely answer the question of why my prison ministry of song matters so much to me and has been such a personal quest.
The day of the concert arrived! I'd had my '91 truck checked out and serviced, readied its interior for a vehicle-search, and loaded it up with maps, route numbers, bottled water, some personal items, and my music gear. My concert was the first of its kind (non-religious, although I did include one of my inspirational originals that has a rousing interactive chorus). At the facility, the security personnel were very considerate and kind to me. After my equipment and I had been processed, three inmates set up every last detail of my music gear, even a little side table for me to use for my bottle of water and lead sheets, and a small rug for my pedal. They manned the excellent sound system which had been donated by a church. They were experts, the best soundmen I've ever worked with.
A young man of 23, serving a life sentence for the murder he'd committed at age 16, asked if he could try my keyboard. He played beautiful passages of various and intermingling genres and was a great show opener. More than 300 inmates who "had freedom of movement within the compound" flowed into the room. Some of them came up to me and told me where they were from and bits of information about themselves. I looked around the room at the mostly young men in their uniforms of denim blue with a leg stripe, a scene I'd imagined many times during the days leading up to the concert. I did 13 songs for them .. blues, jazz, rock, latinesque, shuffle, inspirational, ballad ... and more blues; the songs were mostly my originals, but I included three beloved and rhythmic cover songs. Hands clapped and feet stomped, smiles were everywhere, voices chorused at appropriate times. For some of the songs, inmates volunteered to come up front and play the maraca and tambourine I'd brought. In-between songs I chatted much like I do with general audiences; they clung to every word. I concluded the show with a little walking-bass blues song I wrote that says "Time for me to leave now, as much as I'd like to stay" ... they roared with laughter. The applause thundered and still plays in my mind. When they shouted "encore", the chaplain sidled up to the mic and in his matter-of-fact, fatherly way thanked them for coming and asked them to return to their cells. Many of them lined up to shake my hand and then they disappeared through the doorways and the huge room was empty except for the chaplain and me. He escorted my equipment and me back through the series of security chambers and out into the night.
The evening was an epiphany for me, one of several in my life, but most definitely the most powerful and spiritual.