I’m sweating as I walk up to the gatehouse of the Oregon State Correctional Institute. Nervous about being turned away for not dressing to OSCI code, I wore a suit — even though the blistering sun above me didn’t agree with the decision.
After receiving a stern lecture via intercom from a guard inside a tower about the importance of using sidewalks, I start to sweat more. The perspiration pours as I go through security, a process that gives TSA a run for its money.
I tell myself that dealing with the vetting process is a small price to pay to see a prison yard show, because attending it as a visitor is better than the alternative.
In my mind, I’m imagining how the concert is going to go based on the legendary Johnny Cash live prison albums that revived his career and ignited his political fire, leading him to lobby politicians for prison reform.
Prison concerts didn’t stop after Cash recorded his 1968 album At Folsom Prison. More recently, the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte recorded a documentary about their show at Folsom Prison, which is available Sept. 15 on Netflix.
Folsom50 is the product of two Oregonians: Tracy Schlapp and Danny Wilson. No matter what the medium is, the intention of the project is to offer an experience found in the outside world to incarcerated people throughout the state, whom they call “adults in custody” (AICs) rather than inmates.
Folsom50 is informed by Cash’s beliefs in reinvention and redemption, according to the organization. The project brings the outside world to Oregon’s prison population. It’s brought the Cash tribute band Luther’s Boots performing At Folsom Prison, along with more of Cash’s music, lectures about redemption and, as a one-time show, the music and philosophy of the alt-rock band Ween.
Yes, somehow Ween — that weird band from the 1990s with a cult-like fan base — fits into all of this. Ween’s name was heard around the world with the hit “Push Th’ Little Daisies.” Following that, the band penned other songs with names (that were included in the OSCI set list) like “Bananas and Blow,” “Demon Sweat” and “Joppa Road.”
Sure, Ween plays straight-up rock ‘n’ roll, but the band also demonstrates genre-bending songwriting and skillful instrumentation punctuated at times with sharp adolescent humor that makes it no wonder the group has a working history with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
The cover band Brown Stallion, which proselytizes the catalogue of Ween in both Portland and Eugene, brought the gospel of Ween and its experimental rock ‘n’ roll to a men’s medium security prison yard in Salem.
But first they had to get through security.
I may have been sweating as I went through security, running back to my car to drop off items like my cell phone and unnecessary keys (to not tempt AICs with weaponry, I’m told), but the band about to perform had a far more thorough check-in process.
Correctional officers investigate all of the cases and instruments, tediously inventorying how many sets of guitar strings, cables and whatever else the band needed to put on a show.
Of course, someone who wants to cause trouble could do a lot with a thin-gauge guitar string that can handle a lot of tension but, at the end of the night, a correctional officer (the same one who told me about the dangers of keys) says guitar strings are great for tattoos.
Once the entire band checks in, the OSCI guard reads a disclaimer saying that, as visitors, we know there are inherent risks to visiting a prison, like we could be held as a hostage and the prison isn’t liable for any harm and so on.
But to hell with the risks — I’m going in.
Behind the Music
Wilson and Schlapp often visit Oregon correctional institutions. You won’t find their names in arrest logs, but their dedication to conducting outreach to AICs has them visiting a number of institutions throughout Oregon.
I met with them at Sam Bond’s Garage at a Brown Stallion show a few months before the OSCI concert to talk about their goal of bringing an outside experience of music to inmates.
In 2018, Wilson, along with other musicians, performed Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison in 10 of Oregon’s prisons and a federal prison as Luther’s Boots, and returned to a few facilities to make it a 15-show tour.
Schlapp says that once they started doing the prison show, she and Wilson thought it was important for incarcerated people to have music resonating throughout the chow hall and chapel.
The Folsom50 project’s 2018 season was funded by a grant from Virginia-based nonprofit Ground Beneath Us. The organization awarded the program a fellowship so they could pay for the band’s travel expenses to visit prisons throughout the state.
The project also received donations from Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Community Foundation, and Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Schlapp worked with Wilson to produce the project, creating booklets for AICs to peruse during the concert — something like a vinyl album’s liner notes. Schlapp used images from her designed handbooks during the Cash performances so imagery from the songs could stand out, such as trains, lyrical word art and a portrait of Cash himself.
Wilson says people often ask what it’s like to play inside a prison: what the environment is like and if the group has to pull any punches from the set list.
“We had talked early on about how we want to do it exactly like we’d do it outside,” he says. “There’s no difference in the people — we’re all the same.”
Some of Cash’s songs still stir up excitement from incarcerated audiences. Just take “Cocaine Blues.” Although Oregon’s correctional staff OK’d the lyrical content, Schlapp says she had concerns about the line: “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.”
At first, Schlapp says she didn’t know if playing “Cocaine Blues” in a women’s prison would be appropriate, since so many of the AICs have experienced domestic violence.
When Wilson performed the song in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Wilsonville, he loudly sang the line, bringing out a lot of hollering and cheer from the crowd, Schlapp says.
“It’s akin to swearing at church,” she says. “There’s so much of your life that is mitigated by rules and trying to get straight that occasionally we need that moment of complete release.”
One song that really resonates with the crowd is Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” a song he recorded decades after At Folsom Prison.
“It covers two generations,” Schlapp says. “It’s the kind of piece in the show where I’ve had the experience of looking at a guy in the eyes and having him in tears. There’s a lot of emotional content in that song.”
Playing “Hurt” for incarcerated people also carries weight for those who’ve dealt with drug addiction or, in the case of the women’s correctional institutions, cutting and self-harm, Wilson and Schlapp say. The song opens with, “I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel,” and has references to self-harm and heroin addiction throughout the song.
“You feel like you’re really connecting with people through music,” she says. “At the end of the show, quite often people come to us and say thank you for recognizing my humanity.”
The Band Comes Around
Once inside OSCI, tensions ease. The band, Schlapp and I pass through the gate into the world of OSCI. Three AICs greet us. They’re not wearing the orange jumpsuits often portrayed in mainstream media.
Instead, some are dressed in blue jeans with OSCI branding on the pant legs and others are dressed in long blue basketball shorts. And they’re all excited for the Brown Stallion show.
Stepping out on OSCI’s yard, a blue sky contrasts with the dead grass and dusty field. As we walk to the area designated for the band, we pass by workout equipment — free weights chained to the ground.
OSCI offers more than just outdoor free weights. AICs participate in sports tournaments, and pickleball is a popular sport, says George Escalante, a recreation specialist at the prison.
Standing 6-foot-3-inches, Andrew Gordon is serving a life sentence and has been in prison since he was 19. While we wait for the band to go through sound check, we talk about the yard. I tell him how the yard wasn’t what I expected.
“What were you thinking?” he asks.
“I’m not going to lie. I thought it would be something like how they show it on TV,” I say.
Gordon says OSCI is calmer than other Oregon prisons. When he was transferred to the facility, he says, he heard from guards and other AICs that OSCI had the reputation of a college campus. You have the yard where everyone hangs out and the buildings are like the dorms.
I could see his point. Being a Californian, I went to a high school designed like a prison and a public university that was once an Army base. If you ignore the backdrop of guard towers and barbed wire fences, the area doesn’t appear all that different than those California settings.
Although the show is set in a prison yard, a sense of excitement is in the air, the type you feel on schooldays when assemblies break the mold of normalcy.
For some, this isn’t the first time they’ve seen a performance from Folsom50. Some saw the Luther’s Boots Johnny Cash tribute group perform in OSCI’s auditorium last year, although that was limited to about 90 AICs. (It was transmitted on an OSCI TV channel.)
The excitement might be noticeable because, the day before the concert, AICs played a few softball games against the correctional officers — like in the movie The Longest Yard. The officers lost the game, too, despite bringing in ringers from Chemeketa Community College and a student from Corban University.
It’s not just the AICs who are excited for the show. Before the music starts, a correctional officer says he swapped his assignment to see the concert. And while the band does sound check, another officer demonstrates his “flossing” chops — a dance move popularized by the video game Fortnite.
A few minutes behind schedule, the site-wide intercom rings out arpeggios similar to “Mr. Sandman,” signaling yard time for about one-third of the population. The Brown Stallion show is going to have a larger audience in the yard than the 2018 Luther’s Boots show.
AICs saunter through the gates and into the yard. Some walk to the weight lifting area, some head to the equipment rental to grab a basketball, while others sit at picnic tables.
Brown Stallion kicks into their set with “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night,” a fast-tempo punk rock-like song with snare hits every downbeat. It’s a way for the band to assert its rock ‘n’ roll credentials for the crowd while also recalling the nature of the opening riff to “Folsom Prison Blues” that kicked off Cash’s live album.
As the band starts playing, Schlapp walks around the yard, handing out liner notes to the concert, a guide of the songs played and Ween’s values to educate those in the yard who don’t know anything about the band. Much like what she wrote for the Luther’s Boots shows, she offers background about Ween’s songs.
Schlapp’s notes cover “the culture of brown,” a term developed to explain Ween’s impulse. She writes that brown is fueled by impulsive, risk-taking behavior, and it signals action followed without consequence.
“It is hitting a sour note, letting it play and then dancing off it,” she writes.
She adds that for people to grow and to change, risks must be taken once in a while, and new things and experiences must be tried.
“We have to be willing to fail, which is increasingly more costly as we age,” she writes. “We have to forgive our mistakes if we wish to remain vital.”
As Brown Stallion plays through its set, the yard feels less like a prison. Sure, there’s a lot of male energy in the yard. You can hear some men shouting over a game of basketball or walking around with their chests pumped up.
All that male posturing pales in comparison to the number of AICs lounging on the grass or picnic tables as if it’s a concert in the park. The transition from a prison yard to a concert in the park is the point of the Folsom50 project.
Hootin’ and hollerin’ in a wheelchair sits a man who goes by the name Fortune. Wearing fashionable skinny rectangular sunglasses, he’s persistent in asking me to ask the band, who’s in the middle of a song, if he can sing a song.
I tell him that I don’t have that power.
“You’re wearing pointy shoes and slacks,” he tells me.
I ask him what he wants to sing, and he responds with some bluesy growls and phrasing.
Next, he asks several times that I should dance with him. Uncomfortable with the idea of dancing with another man inside a prison, I laugh it off, telling him I don’t dance.
When I sit down next to Fortune and tell him why I’m at the show, he says he’s enjoyed the weekend so much that the past few days have felt like a family reunion.
Earlier in the day, some of the AICs had a barbecue with hot links and hamburgers. Some participated in a walkathon to raise money for a program that provides children of inmates presents during the holiday season.
Fortune turns serious as we continue talking about the concert. He says the show is a great way for the facility to prove they aren’t just locking them up and throwing away the keys.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “They don’t do things like this in other places. It feels like we’re a part of society — that we feel wanted.”
Creating a sense of community and fostering respect for one another is important for Escalante, the facility’s recreation specialist.
He tells me that a few years ago, the facility abandoned its in-house newspaper for an internal, inmate-led news channel. On the channel, AICs talk about current events inside the prison, offering reflections of OSCI from longtime AICs, and even providing reruns of past concerts — like the Luther’s Boots and Brown Stallion shows.
Escalante proudly says he’s had some AICs recently graduate with GEDs and even bachelors degrees while incarcerated.
It’s all about offering respect, he says.
As I’m talking with Escalante, Wilson, who’s left the stage during an extended guitar solo, approaches Escalante and asks if an AIC can play guitar on stage. The person who needed convincing is the guitarist, Travis Curry, who was hiding in a huddle of hacky sack players. After several people work on persuading him, he finally agrees to get up on stage.
Before Curry was locked up, he often played shows in punk rock bands, he says, and was about to perform the night he was arrested. Escalante tells me that Curry and his former cellmate won third place in a OSCI-wide talent show last year.
Curry walks behind the yellow tape that marks off the stage. He stands behind the microphone and begins to strum. He tells me after the show that once he got past the first bar of the song, he was back in his groove as if he’d never been away from the stage.
As Curry plays the song, half of which was written in Linn County Jail and the other half at OSCI, some AICs yell out his first name — a special sort of intimate applause, since many refer to each other only by their last names.
An AIC, barefoot and shirtless, starts cheering, and says to anyone who’s listening that he used to see Curry’s band back when they were both “on the streets.”
After he performs, I talk with Curry. He shows me a tattoo on his left arm of the punk band Rancid’s album … And Out Come the Wolves. He bought his guitar from OSCI’s canteen, and the guitar body was customized by one of his former cellmates, a tattoo artist who’s now in Hawaii, he says.
The ornate yellow guitar body is filled with tattoo art illustrations, including one that says “Prison fuels my fire.”
Although Curry has access to a guitar, it’s hard to meet someone with similar interests in music, so finding the inspiration to write music is difficult, he says.
As much as the yard enjoyed the music of Ween and the wild leaps in musical idioms of the band’s sound (which ranges from lounge to Prince-style R&B to jam music), none of the songs hit the crowd like Curry’s performance.
James Cale, a lifer, has dedicated much of his time to artwork during his stay inside. He tells me with pride about some of the murals he painted in the Oregon State Hospital’s room for patients who need a calming space. And he says he wants to paint a mural at OSCI.
As he was taking photos of the event, Cale tells me that hearing Curry’s original punk song hit him emotionally.
“I haven’t heard a punk song live in 21 years,” he says.
Throughout the yard during the show, 411 AICs were in attendance, nearly half of the 892 AIC population, though only about 60 were actually congregated around the stage. Attending the concert wasn’t open for everyone, Escalante says, because only those with the higher two incentive levels could attend.
One of the AICs in attendance was Seth Koch, a lifer who’s been locked up since he was 17. He tells me seeing Brown Stallion was the first rock concert he’s been to, but seeing Luther’s Boots last year was the first live show he’d attended.
“It takes you outside the prison,” he says, adding the concert is a nice incentive.
Koch is right. In some moments, it was easy to forget the barbed wire and the fact that many of the people in the yard are incarcerated for terrible mistakes that have altered their lives forever.
There were moments I sensed that the AICs around me had forgotten where they were.
Almost immediately after finishing their final song, the group packs up. A few calls for encores shoot out from the crowd, but the allotted yard time is almost over, snuffing the requests.
Just as a setting sun on a school night recalls neighborhood children to the anxieties of reality, I could feel a similar sentiment emerge in the AICs as they returned to their everyday life at the end of the show.
I noticed that anxiety in Pedro, one of the AICs who had carried musical equipment, cracked jokes and showed off his breakdancing skills throughout the day.
As we all say goodbye to Pedro, he turns away and I can’t help but see reality hit him — a reminder where he is as he walks down the main corridor to his cell.
For more information about Folsom50, visit Folsom50.net. Brown Stallion plays Sam Bonds Garage Saturday, Oct. 26.