Sonny James and his group, the Southern Gentlemen, have for a quarter of a century been one of country music’s leading acts with some 31 No. 1 hits like Young Love and Running Bear. But the Southern gents backing Sonny up in his forthcoming album are a different breed. They include two convicted murderers and three rapists in for life and five other cons doing a total of 118 years. At a performance last month at the Tennessee State Prison, 15 miles from his Nashville home, James was struck—both by the number and fervor of inmates who play in groups for their own recreation as well as by the poor condition of the instruments and amplifiers at their disposal. So James decided to record a live LP using only prisoners. Even the jacket photos were snapped by an inmate. Law forbids Sonny from paying them royalties, but he has promised to spend a sizable sum to upgrade the institution’s musical equipment.
“It’s not unusual for an artist to visit a prison,” says James. (Or even do time, like Haggard and Fender.) “But it was to my knowledge the first time this kind of thing has been undertaken, and I’ve never enjoyed anything more.” Christian service has long been part of James’s life. He met his wife, Doris, at the Church of Christ (and was chosen to produce Marie Osmond’s first three formative albums). Though the prison album titled Sonny James in Prison in Person will include Pistol Packin’ Mama and a tune he composed for the occasion, Don’t Let Me Die on Prison Land, the final cut, picked and chimed in on by all 850 inmates attending the session, was Amazing Grace.
As for the performance itself, James was deeply impressed by the musicianship of his band mates, but cautions: “We didn’t strive for perfection. We didn’t do it for the critics. It is, as they say, ‘listenable,’ though what makes this LP unique and pleasurable is that it’s real. When we finished, we celebrated like we had played in the World Series.”