Thirty-seven years ago, Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, stood onstage before
men in blue jumpsuits and sang,
"I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin' on ..."
On Wednesday, world-beat artist Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead,
will follow in Cash's guitar licks and venture to the Folsom foothills to perform a two-hour concert for inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento.
The Thanksgiving Eve concert, which will be recorded during the day and aired on community radio station KVMR (89.5 FM) and streamed on the Internet at www.kvmr.org, both at 8 p.m., isn't the first concert at Folsom since Cash's 1968 show. But it may be the highest-profile gig since then. The Pacifica Radio Network will make the broadcast available to member stations nationally.
Franti enthusiastically signed on when KVMR, which has worked closely with Folsom's inmate population, invited him to play.
One problem, though: He hasn't memorized the words and music to "Folsom Prison Blues" - not yet, anyway.
"I've got to listen to it myself," Franti, laughing, says in a phone interview from a tour stop in Oregon. "I don't know the tune yet."
But Franti says he's a big fan of Cash, subject of the recently released biopic "Walk the Line," which has renewed interest in the country music legend's career.
"There's something I've always admired about Johnny Cash," said Franti, who grew up in Davis. "First of all, I just love his voice. ... And he wasn't afraid to take stands on issues. He always carried himself with dignity, even though he was viewed as kind of an outlaw. He was a rebel with a purpose and passion."
KVMR program director Steve Baker and disc jockey Cheri Snook say those same qualities are found in Franti, known almost as much for his activism for progressive causes as his music. That's why they immediately thought of him as the headliner.
"We figured he was perfect, and his management e-mailed us right back and said, 'Let's do it,' " Snook says.
If it sounds improbable that a tiny Nevada City community radio station would snag a nationally known recording artist for a concert behind bars at a maximum-security prison, then you don't know the history of KVMR.
For three decades, the station has aired live music at bluegrass festivals and folk acts at venues such as The Palms in Winters (formerly in Davis) and at Nevada City's Miner's Foundry.
"It's a way to personally connect with our audience and beyond," Baker says, "and it's a way to bring our listeners places they can't be."
In the past two years, Snook and other DJs at KVMR have coordinated outreach activities at Folsom with the prison's arts program director, Jim Carlson. Snook has brought in singer-songwriters and poets from the West Coast to perform for and tutor inmates. The inmates' poetry and music also have been aired on the station.
The collaboration started in September 2004 when Snook received an early-morning call from a prison doctor at Folsom. He had just heard Alaska folk singer Buddy Tabor's song "Medicated Family" on KVMR.
"He told me the men (in prison) needed to hear this," Snook says. "They eventually asked Buddy to come in and play for about 18 guys. ... I went along, too, and met some of the most amazing, heartfelt, spiritual men who had no grievance except to do their time and be responsible."
Soon, some of the inmates were corresponding with Snook. KVMR has made regular trips to Folsom to record the inmates' songs and spoken-word poetry.
"After the first concert, one of the guys said to me, 'Can you please tell people out there that we're human?' " Snook says. "I found that some of the men had been faithful (KVMR) listeners for years. Our next pledge drive, one of the guys sent us $100. I burst into tears. He said it was 'from all the men in blue.' Maybe by giving, they feel connected to the community."
Franti, for his part, said he performs a half-dozen shows a year in prisons.
"It's a surprise when you go inside and see someone who could be your neighbor or the guy who runs the shop down the street," he says. "It's maximum-security, but a lot of people in there are not violent offenders, especially now with the war on drugs.
"You're asked to come in (a prison) to bring inspiration to people, but I always find I leave more inspired from the experience.
" I believe music has the ability to bring down barriers."
MICHAEL FRANTI AND SPEARHEADWHO: With Dianne Patterson, Melissa Mitchell and Kimberly Bass opening.
WHAT: In concert at California State Prison, Sacramento, adjacent to "old" Folsom State Prison.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday on KVMR (89.5 FM) or streaming at www.kvmr.org.
About the writer:
The Bee's Sam McManis