THE LEAST OF THESE …
Most songwriters write songs for free people. We write about the unrestrained interests of the soul; expressing our faith freely; expressing our love freely. We tell stories about things that happen to people in the pursuit of happiness. These are all things enjoyed on the outside of prison walls.
Johnny Cash was the lone troubadour of the incarcerated, but the rest of us follow our muse outside the steel and barbed wire of correctional facilities. I never really thought about that until recently …
I’ve been asked to play prisons several times. A few times, I couldn’t make it work in the schedule. But the time or two that I could, I declined. Every time you agree to a gig, you think about your set list, then think about your audience. You ask yourself, “will this one work there? Can I say this or that?” You always consider the crowd. If I’m playing at a rowdy bar, I stow the ballads. If I’m at a listening room, I bring out the introspection. “Know your audience” is one of the first axioms you learn in the business of performing music. Given that, I’ve never thought I had anything to say to a group of prisoners.
I was asked, yet again, to play at a correctional facility here in Nashville, a few weeks ago. Nathan Lee is the John the Baptist of singer/songwriters and he encouraged me to come with him and do an hour set for some local prisoners. I explained my apprehension to him …but he convinced me to “say yes” (I hate it when your own words come back to bite you). So …I agreed.
I met Nathan Lee & Nate Lampa (the sound man) and the man who heads the program that brings in the programs for these guys, in the front of the jail. We then made our way to through security to the bowels of the building, where I was to sit at a keyboard, in front of the showers, and sing to guys who had no way out …literally. I’ve played for captive audiences before, but this gave that phrase a whol new meaning.
My father used to be the chaplain at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He always talked about being locked in with the prisoners and how disturbing it could be. I never quite understood what he meant until they said, “ok guys …once we’re in …we’re in.” I looked up and saw about 50 dudes tatted up and life-hardened. Upon scanning the room, I realized that there was ONE guard. You realize pretty quick that if someone wants to get sideways with you, they probably can. What’s gonna happen to them? Are they going to get sent to jail? It’s a sobering thought.
Nathan and Nate set up the gear while I met some of the inmates. The guys I met were all cordial and welcoming. I’ve definitely played for more hostile audiences. After some brief introductions, I took my seat at the keyboard (in front of the showers) and looked at those guys staring back. I simply said, “guys, I’ve never been where you are, so I’m not going to pretend I have. But here’s my story …” and I began the set. Singing the words, “today I’m gonna follow this heart of mine, howl at the moon, sing in the sunshine …while it’s still burning on my skin,” felt a little weird, in front of guys who lived in a world of rationed sunshine. The blank stares coming back at me made my heart sink a little. That’s the moment you realize you haven’t thought of every one in your songs. I remember pitching songs to Ronnie Milsap some years ago. I never realized how much I talk about things you can SEE in my songs, or being “blinded” to something until I pitched songs to a blind man. This was the same feeling; the stark epiphany of how much my writing is about …me.
Nevertheless, I pressed on with the set. The guys seemed to enjoy what I did and they were genuinely moved by the story I told. As I looked those guys in the face, I started to get a weird sense of respect for them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no bleeding heart and I firmly believe in paying for one’s crimes. But I couldn’t help thinking that these guys were doing it. They were doing their time. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the guilty people I know who haven’t done theirs and probably never will. It made me see those prisoners in a new light. At least they were being straight up and paying their debts. I see people on the news every night who aren’t.
During the set I did Shelby Street Bridge, off my American Dreams CD. It’s the story of a homeless guy who lives under the Shelby Street bridge. He sells his Harley for cocaine. He’s an alcoholic. He’s a veteran who has given up on the dream and has dropped off the grid. After I finished my set, more than one of those guys came up to me and talked about how much they related to that song. One guy even said, “man I’ve sold my bike for blow. I DID that, bro! You related to me man.” I was moved that they were listening that closely. A lot of my “freer” audiences don’t pay attention to the lyrics. I suppose that’s the prerogative of freedom.
I walked out of that place with my heart lighter and heavier at the same time. My daughter is a daily and constant reminder to me of what Jesus meant by “the least of these.” She is often adored and made over by family and friends and it’s very sweet to watch. Her school peers really make the effort to include her in everything and that’s wonderful. But when it’s time to deal with the realities of her disorder, there are only a handful of people willing and able to engage in that. I fear that she often feels alone in her life, because she cannot separate herself from her disorder and that keeps so much of life unavailable to her. In a lot of ways she’s like a prisoner. Over the years, I’ve grown to count it an honor to engage in the less-than-attractive details of her disorder. It has drawn me closer to God.
In that same spirit, I realized how little I’ve regarded people in prison throughout my life. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re human and need to know they’re not forgotten. I found myself feeling honored to share with them and to let them know that even behind those walls, there could be light.
Jesus said, “if you’ve done it to ‘the least of these’, you’ve done it to me.” What he didn’t say, but what is so true, is that he’ll meet you there while you’re doing it. I think he chose to leave that part out because you have to experience it for yourself. Just like I feel closer to God when I’m caring for my daughter, I felt close to God behind those bars with those men. It made sense to me that Jesus would more likely be there than at a concert hall, under the spotlight. I felt like the lucky brother to those guys …the one who didn’t get caught, but who deserved to be there as much as them. In that guilt …I felt a sense of redemption. That’s where Jesus hangs out …wherever there’s redemption.
Though I don’t remember all their names, they are now in my head and heart. I don’t know what they did to end up there, I don’t condone or justify it and I hope they never do it again. But I don’t really have to know. All I have to know is they are where they are right now …and they’re in my prayers.
More on Regie Hamm at: REGIEHAMM.COM