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Matt Butler has played concerts in more than 50 prisons and jails

Matt Butler performing at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.
Liam Trouchard
Matt Butler
Matt Butler performing at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.

Singer/songwriter Matt Butler says he's performed for incarcerated people in more than 50 prisons and jails across the country. But he doesn't just tell them stories; sometimes he hears the stories of the inmates, how they got there, how they cope.

Butler's written a few of those moments into a new one-man show and EP called "Reckless Son."

Butler says he started playing for incarcerated audiences at the Albany County Correctional Facility in New York.

"It was an intimidating experience," he told Morning Edition host Leila Fadel.

"I found myself walking through these long corridors and these various security checkpoints and these big metal-bar doors slamming behind me. I definitely thought to myself: How did I get into this thing? What is about to happen?"

It ended up being a wonderful first experience, Butler says, with a lot of laughing but also a lot of reflection. It led to a new passion for bringing some of the outside world to those on the inside.

Butler wrote the song "Time To Be a Man" about the ways authority figures use that phrase to bully convicts and manipulate their masculinity.

"I was very, very nervous about performing that for an incarcerated audience for the first time. I was afraid that I would come off as condescending or patronizing."

He met one person at Chesterfield County Jail in Virginia who had a surprising reaction to the song.

"A pretty intimidating guy. 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. He had a well-cultivated look for a guy who had definitely spent time inside facilities. And he looked at me and said, 'Hey, man, that song really f***ed with me.' He looked like he was going to tear my head off. And the exact opposite of what I thought was going to happen happened."

Butler said, "Those lyrics, 'it's time to choose, it's time to take a stand,' really stuck with this man because he was figuring it out himself."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.