A couple weeks back, the jam band—also known as The Outfit—was asked to play a Sunday afternoon show at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Ky. For our efforts, we’d get paid $800. That sounds like a pretty good piece of money, but take out $120 for the booking agent, $150 for gas and $100 for the sound man, and that leaves $430. That breaks down to $61.42 apiece, a net of $5.11 per hour, per man, before taxes.
As soon as I did the math, I harked back to the words of my bass-playing buddy Big Steve: “Man, I’ve been playing the same 20 songs for the last 20 years for the same 20 dollars.”
Usually, I’d cheerfully pay $61.42 just to have a Sunday all to myself. But for some reason, I thought I might get some peculiar enjoyment out of playing a prison gig. Not that a prison gig would be all that different from the biker bars and redneck honky-tonks I’ve played. By the time I was 22, I’d seen three men shot, one man sliced up with a broken beer bottle and one woman coldcocked while trying to rescue her boyfriend from a fearful ass-whuppin’.
But I’d never been inside a prison. So two Sundays ago, I got up at 6 in the morning, picked up my buddy Ferg (the hundred-dollar sound man) and headed for La Grange.
Four hours later, Ferg and I pulled up to the prison’s main gate. “I’m with the rock ’n’ roll band that’s playing at 1 o’clock,” I told the gatekeeper. “Tell me what to do. It’s my first time in a prison. I don’t want to screw anything up.”
The gatekeeper pointed toward the prison house. “Go to that stop sign,” he said, “then take a left and keep going until you get to a closed gate. Stop at the gate and somebody will come let you in.”
I went straight to the stop sign, took the left, followed the only paved road, and found no closed gates. Rather than stop at an open gate—which didn’t make any sense to me—I circumnavigated the prison. As I neared a guard tower, I saw a man hanging out of the tower window, waving for me to stop. So I stopped. “Don’t drive all the way around the prison again,” he said. “That’ll get you hurt. Stop at the gate.”
So, I started around the prison again, hoping to find a closed gate and a little worried about getting hurt. This time, gate 32 slid shut as I approached. A man yelled down from the guard tower. “Sorry. It was stuck open last time you came through.” As the guard was explaining, gate 31 closed behind me.
Ferg and I were trapped like Spam in a can, surrounded by fences twice as tall as we were, every inch of fence festooned with barbed wire and razor wire. “Ferg,” I said, “we are not in control.” Ferg agreed.
Just then, a guard walked through a series of gates to our right. “Gotta have your drivers’ licenses,” he said. “You’ll get them back when you’re done.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, “where do you intend to store my driver’s license? Being a free man and all, I want to be able to get it when I want it.”
“It’ll be here in the tower,” the guard explained.
About that time, another guard walked up, pushing a big blue bin. “You can haul your equipment in this,” he said. And so we did. The guard escorted us to the prison gym—which looked just like any high school gym you ever saw—where we met up with the rest of the band and set up our gear.
About an hour later, the gym bleachers filled up with inmates, who looked just like any convicts you ever saw—which means that they all looked like members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’d guess there were about 150 of them, which meant that the band was outmanned 20 to one. Since we were in La Grange, naturally we opened with ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” The inmates responded with enthusiastic applause.
The folks in the audience were well-behaved and appreciative, with one exception. One asshole noticed a band girlfriend sitting behind the amps and yelled out, “Show us your titties!”
I walked up to my microphone and gently announced, “That’s not going to happen. But if any of y’all want to show us your titties, go right ahead.” The inmates laughed. None showed their titties. Thank God.
The rest of the show went fine. The band played well, the inmates had a rocking good time, and nobody got hurt. The guards freed us after they made sure that no prisoners were hiding in our U-Haul trailer.Here’s what I took away from my first and last prison-gig experience: if you’re going to play for inmates in a Kentucky prison, just play Skynyrd—for the whole two hours. Hell, just play “Simple Man” for two hours. They’ll love you for it.
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