Musician, artist find prison shows quite satisfying
What started as a project to put on a couple concerts at Oregon prisons, ala Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 52 years ago, turned into a labor of love for Danny Wilson and his band, with artist Tracy Schlapp.
For the Folsom50 Project, Wilson and his band, Luther's Boots, have put on concerts in almost all of Oregon's prisons in the past two years, meant to bring some positivity and entertainment to people behind bars. He and Schlapp have expanded the project to include lectures and music for the public to further educate them on prisoners and the prison system.
It's called the "Oregon Prison Tour."
Wilson, a guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist, and his band played music from Cash's "At Folsom Prison" at the gigs, and they have put out an album of originals, "Darkened Road Ahead," based on their experiences.
"For me, personally, it changed the way I look at things," Wilson said. "I realized early on that prison and what's inside didn't cross my mind, and what people had to go through. It was uncomfortable to think about. I'm not alone in that. It opened my eyes doing this project; it made me better at a lot of things, having more empathy, trying to understand other people's points of view and where they're at. 'It could be me there.'"
Schlapp, who provided a Playbill-inspired program with a contextual essay about "At Folsom Prison" for inmates at the concerts, quotes a Cash song to make the same point: "But for the grace of God it could be you instead of him."
She added: "It's immensely satisfying to meet new people and connect to them, and have them be so open to your art and so hungry for it. I feel very welcome, but I also feel it's a privilege to come in and have people trust me. My words hopefully touch someone's heart. ... One of the great pleasures of my life is dealing with these men."
The project was born from Cash's "At Folsom Prison" record, and from Wilson and Schlapp reuniting after years of not being in touch. "I wanted to get with my band and play this album start to finish," he said. "Tracy said, 'That's be great, but you should play it in prison.'"
Supported by a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant, the first show took place in spring 2018 at Columbia River Correctional Institute in Portland — 50 years after Cash's famous concert. It was well-received, and all the inmates kept the program and essay, Schapp said, indicative of their interest.
"The other thing that interested me was that (on the outside) you're accustomed to people looking at their cell phones," she said. "It was interesting being at a place where the audience was not only attentive but hungry, really enthusiastic, rapt, reading the books, completely engaged."
A concert followed at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, an all-women's prison in Wilsonville.
Both times, "everybody was nervous about it," Wilson said. "We didn't know what to expect. (Nerves) dissipated fast. They were sitting there all watching and paying attention and they knew the songs' words and that made it relaxing and fun. At CRCI, it was the best crowd I've played to."
It was gratifying to visit with inmates after the concerts and hear their stories and appreciation, they said.
In June 2018, they played at Oregon State Penitentiary in a fundraiser to help the prisoners build a Japanese garden in the prison. Said Schlapp: "We opened the yard to 750 men. It was amazing, a big step."
The tour continued at South Fork Forest Camp in Tillamook, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker, Snake River Correctional Institute in Ontario, Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview and Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, and other prisons.
Wilson and Schlapp orchestrated another, smaller tour in 2019. At the same time, Schapp received an Oregon Arts Commission grant to publish a book — "Cash: Music, Legacy and Redemption," capsulizing the first season of shows — that she read from alongside Wilson's music. The first show was for a Vancouver, Washington, high school.
"The lecture was designed more for outside people, but we also did it for folks inside," Wilson said.
Schlapp said sharing prison stories to members of the public "is not even about guilt and innocence, it's about the way we're human and we fail."
Last October, the duo performed their music/lecture show at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess, Arkansas.
The album "Darkened Road Ahead" followed, thanks to another RACC grant. Joining Wilson in Luther's Boots are Zach Holden (lead guitar), Wyatt Unger (bass) and Kevin Peterson (drums/backup vocals). Adults at Warner Creek in Lakeview worked with Wilson to record backup vocals for two songs on the album.
Wilson and Schlapp had scheduled 2020 shows, which have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions. It was going to entail visiting prisons again; the two hope to hold public shows.
Wilson said the prison shows serve as fundraisers and not paid shows. Only prisoners granted permission are allowed to attend concerts. There are only a handful of Oregon prisons that haven't hosted the shows.
In the past, the likes of George Thorogood, Jackson Browne and Stevie Ray Vaughn have actually played shows at Oregon State Penitentiary.
"It's a privilege for us for them to be willing to take a gamble on our intensions," Wilson said.
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