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Musician Matt Butler has turned years of playing in prisons into a one-man show


Singer-songwriter Matt Butler says he's performed for incarcerated people in more than 50 prisons and jails across the country. He's not just telling them stories through song; sometimes he gets to hear the inmates' stories, too - how they got there, how they cope. Butler's written a few of those moments into a new one-man show. It's called "Reckless Son."


MATT BUTLER: (Singing) Don't try to lie or to pretend. Everybody knew that I would end up here again.

FADEL: Matt Butler says he started playing for incarcerated audiences at the Albany County Correctional Facility in New York, and he had no idea what he was getting into.

BUTLER: It was an intimidating experience. I found myself walking through these long corridors and these various security checkpoints and these big metal bar doors slamming behind me, and I definitely thought to myself, how did I get into this? You know, like, what is about to happen? It turned out to be just this really wonderful, beautiful experience.


BUTLER: (Singing) Tell Lucy that I love her, but I'm not what she needs. Tell her I said she's better off without me.

FADEL: When you say it was a wonderful and beautiful reaction, I mean, what does that look like? Were they relating to the lyrics? Is it a moment of freedom? I mean, these are people who don't have their freedom to walk around, to go to a concert. I mean, what was it that made it wonderful?

BUTLER: I keep in mind that they're not necessarily choosing to hear my music, either. You know, that's something that in - to some degree, is, like, being sort of foisted upon them. And I try to be humble about that. There was a lot of smiling and laughing but also reflection. And like you said, I think there was some relating and there was some identification that took place. And one of the things that sort of made the experience so valuable for me was that I was able to have sort of a conversation. I asked them questions, and they asked me questions. And I think that the music is almost what, like, allows for some sort of, like, intimacy to take place. And I would say that I'm still learning.

FADEL: So is there, like, one anecdote that is an example of you learning something, relating in a different way, a mistake?

BUTLER: Yeah. There's a song on the beginning of the record called "Time To Be A Man." I wrote that and I was very, very nervous about performing that for an incarcerated audience for the first time.


BUTLER: (Singing) Till I got busted in some parking lot. Cop said guys like you either die or get caught. And he locked those cuffs around my hands. He looked me in the eyes and he says, son, it's time to be a man.

I was afraid that it would come off as me scolding them in some degree. And that is sort of the last thing I would ever want to do in that situation, is sort of rubbing their nose in something. You know, like, if anybody is aware of the situation that they're in, it's them. When I played it, one of them, who was - I would say was a pretty intimidating guy, like, I'm kind of on the small side and this individual was well over six feet and had a mohawk, but the mohawk wasn't done up with gel. It was, like, just sort of hanging off the side of his face and he just...

FADEL: Yeah. He had a look.

BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. He had a well-cultivated look. And he looked at me - and I know we're probably not allowed to use profanity in this program, but he said, hey, man, that song really F-ed with me.


BUTLER: And the look he gave me, he just looked like he was going to tear my head off. And I was kind of like...

FADEL: Uh-oh.

BUTLER: ...When he said it, I was looking around to see how...

FADEL: Where's the exit?

BUTLER: ...You know, like, where - is there someone here that could get to me before he does? And the exact opposite of what I thought was going to happen happened.


BUTLER: (Singing) It's time to be a man. It's time to choose, boy, it's time to take a stand. It's time to find out who I really am. It's time to be a man.

FADEL: Do you make money? Do you get paid for these gigs?

BUTLER: No. So...

FADEL: Yeah, I was thinking, like, how do you survive, Matt Butler?

BUTLER: Yeah, well, I have to be adaptable. Typically, I would be on tour. And a lot of times, I was doing private events. And what would end up happening was that, like, people would see where I was going to be based on social media. And wherever I was, a lot of people would reach out and say, hey, if you're going to be in this town for this gig or this city for this gig, would you mind also maybe playing at the county jail during the day? So I would do one show that I was getting paid for in order to do three or four that I was doing for free.

FADEL: When you do these performances, do you often get to have one-on-one interactions, conversations with the incarcerated individuals that you're performing for?

BUTLER: Yes, it's very different each time. In all of those situations, I try to interact as much as I can. Some of those scenarios lend themselves to interaction more than others. There's a song called "Been Gone So Long." It's, you know, I remember just hearing a guy saying how hard it was for him to make it to his job interviews and his probation and parole appointments because he didn't have a car, and he didn't have a driver's license, and he lived in somewhat rural West Virginia. Traveling was very difficult for him to, you know, make it to these different places. And he just didn't have a license.


BUTLER: (Singing) Early in the morning, I go looking for work. I bum rides since I lost my car. I hitch a couple miles to my PO just to tell him no luck so far.

And to me, that was sort of this moment of, like, insight into the entire experience of reentry and just the incredible amount of obstacles that people face when they are no longer incarcerated, but they're trying to make their way back into society and to stay out of jail...

FADEL: Yeah.

BUTLER: ...And the factors that can really be problematic for them and lead to recidivism.


BUTLER: (Singing) Now this place don't feel like home. I've been gone so long.

My sense is that it's very easy for the incarcerated to feel forgotten or neglected or unseen. And I think that sometimes, just the simple act of showing up to say, hey, I'm here to spend some time with you is something that, like, right off the rip is really appreciated by them. So my sense really is that, like, the best audiences I've ever played for have been in jails and in prison.


BUTLER: (Singing) I'm praying for rain. I'm praying for the purpose in all of this pain.

FADEL: Matt Butler turned his experience performing music in prisons into a new one-man show called "Reckless Son." Thank you so much, Matt.

BUTLER: Thank you, Leila. I really appreciate it.


BUTLER: (Singing) I'm shedding these tears in vain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.