Bluegrass Behind Bars
Hot Day at the Zoo in a Vermont prison
Contributing Writer : Garret K. Woodward [TheRFW.com/blog/Garret]
Contributing Photographer : Andrew “Dirty Santa” Wyatt [TheRFW.com/blog/DirtySanta]
Authoritative boots echo down the sterile corridor with an ominous tone. The cold concrete and brick walls are silent. Thousand yard stares from those caged behind bulletproof glass. Barbed wire lines the fences outside, while isolation and monotony lingers within.
The scene is reminiscent of John Belushi’s entrance in The Blues Brothers.
And like the memorable ending to the film, music amid the depths of those cast away from society reigns an ever-present reminder of the power of redemption.
Bringing their overzealous brand of bluegrass to a more than captive audience, Massachusetts ensemble Hot Day at the Zoo took a moment off the road to educate and motivate those in less than inspiring quarters last weekend.
On their way to the recent Snoe.Down Winter Music & Sports Festival in Killington, the Bostonian bluegrass brigade performed at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland as part of an ongoing program within the prison to provide necessary skills and constructive hobbies for inmates.
Setting up equipment and going through soundcheck in the prison library, guitarist Michael Dion stops and looks around the space.
“You know, before coming here, the most unique place we ever played was at a Boy Scout camp,” he chuckled.
With around 140 people incarcerated on various felonies at a given time, the medium security facility creates opportunities through their onsite community high school- a place for any willing to take the next step in acquiring a proper education and make the most of time spent behind bars.
Of the numerous programs, music education is one of the centerpieces.
“Even though we are a correctional facility, we try to provide the students with a wide range of topics,” said John Cassarino, director of volunteer services. “We try to be creative in what we offer. Whether you are an inmate or a citizen, music can give you an mental escape and a positive outlet in society.”
Operating for over a decade, the program consists of two classes, each running a few hours a day. Up to eight participants can attend the music production class, where students can learn basic and advanced skills in the art of recording and producing. For a select, well-behaved few, a class on electronic manufacturing is also taught, which encompasses the technique, maintenance, and assembly of guitars and amplifiers.
“People from around the area send us their amplifier kits to assemble in our classes,” said Dennis Bonanza, music educator. “Once the students put the kits together, we send them back to those members of the community.
“The classes teach more than the titles suggests. It teaches teamwork, problem solving, respect, patience, communication, flexibility, and other skills these guys will need to survive.”
Inviting local talent and regional acts passing through the area to perform in the library every so often, Bonanza sees the experience as a worthy endeavor for the prison and not something of a reward for those placed in their custody.
“These guys are vested into electronics and we are here to teach useful skills,” he said. “Personally, if I’m able to reach a handful of guys and maybe, just maybe, keep them out of jail for the rest of their lives, then it’s worthwhile for me.”
Walking single file into the library, a few dozen inmates find a chair and situate themselves in front of the band. The prisoners sit completely still and look forward, their faces weathered by a slow ticking clock. Unrelenting rays of sunshine filter through the secured doors, crossing the threshold and crashing down onto those seated attentively.
Quietly signaling the commencement of the performance, the group huddles around a lone microphone.
Merging folk, bluegrass, and traditional country, the rebel yells and string bombardment fill the ear with a cacophony of traditional numbers, and unusual classic rock covers (“Alabama Song”, “No Expectations“, “Foxy Lady“), accompanied by a plethora of original material (“One Day Soon”, “Blues for Jimmy”).
The prisoners are respectful and silent throughout. But, once the song ends, raucous cheers and a deafening howl soon follow.
“We don’t want to get you guys too riled up and in trouble,” banjoist Jon Cumming teases.
“You’re too late for that!,” one inmate yells.
“I’ll give you two soups for that mandolin,” another chimes in from the back of the room.
Following a few hearty laughs, the musicians explain the stories behind several melodies. Pointing to their instruments, they explain their approach and how they perfect the sound radiating from the speakers.
The set winds down with an ode to The Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. “Big River” is received with foot stomps, hand claps, and jovial shouts- a surreal moment similar to the legendary 1968 performance at Folsom State Prison.
Serving 20 years to life for an undisclosed crime, Andy W. is an enthusiastic student in the program and has been playing guitar for 17 years.
“Being able to be in this program, to learn and also enjoy someone else’s music is a blessing,“ he said. “Learning electronics, building amplifiers, and assembling guitar pedals are all skills we can take with us to the outside.”
Packing up their gears and once again going through the proper phases of clearance for permission to exit the jail, Cumming watches the last of the inmates march back to their cells.
“It’s not everyday you get to play in front of such a riveted and receptive audience,” he said. “We mostly play rowdy bars where everything is so loud, but here they are listening to the words, watching us, and putting us on the spot to step up to the challenge. It’s great to be able to do something that is meaningful to them.”
“Music is always there for you,” Bonanza said. “It’s there when you’re sad. It’s there when you’re happy. It’s always there.”