‘It felt like Johnny Cash’ — Country musician completes tour of Pa. state prisons

“How many Johnny Cash fans in the house?”

Ben Gallaher called out to about 150 inmates gathered in the gymnasium of Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute Chester, before launching into a medley of Cash standards sewn together with the young country musician’s fiery acoustic guitar playing.

This gig at SCI Chester Wednesday evening is Gallaher’s final stop on his annual Barbed Tour, a string of solo acoustic performances at Pennsylvania state prisons he has been working for seven years.

In 2011, he came home to Harrisburg during winter break from college. A fan of his music who worked at nearby SCI Camp Hill asked if he would like to play inside the prison.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I jumped right on it. It felt like Johnny Cash,” said Gallaher, referring to the late country music star who often performed in prisons, including recording two live albums at Folsom and San Quentin prisons in the late 1960s.

Gallaher says he has little personal experience with correctional institutions; neither he nor any member of his family have been incarcerated.

Shortly after that first performance in Camp Hill, he relocated to Nashville to break into country music. He’s been signed to Sony and is working on his first full-length release. Every winter, Gallaher returns to Pennsylvania to play prisons. He visited six of them on this year’s tour.

“As a songwriter and an artist, my goal is to have a positive impact on folks through music. Whether that’s in a bar, in a church, in a prison, that’s my overall goal,” said Gallaher. “After seven years and all the shows, you can hear a pin drop. They are listening to every word.”

Gallaher normally performs with a full band, giving his music an edgy rock sound. But for his prison gigs, he plays a solo acoustic set, primarily for logistical reasons: It’s hard to get security clearance to load in a van full of band equipment.

Inside, an inmate named Richard helps him — he’s not allowed to give his last name, per state Department of Corrections policy — by setting up the prison’s sound system. SCI Chester gets a handful of concerts every year and has frequent visitors to its gymnasium for various performances and talks. Last year, they even hosted a Ted Talk.

Richard — who has been in SCI Chester for more than 30 years — says no one comes as frequently as Gallaher.

“Listen, it’s great to hear music. It takes us out of where we’re at, even if it’s for an hour,” he said. “I don’t even listen to country, but I like what he does. Obviously the crowd does, too.”

There are roughly 1,260 male inmates living at SCI Chester — including at least one musical celebrity, rapper Meek Mill. The Gallaher show attracted about 150 of them, predominately white.

John has been in SCI Chester for six months, and came to the Gallaher show because he’s a big fan of country and had heard good things about the performer.

“I don’t want to see him here again. I want to see him on tour with a [Tim] McGraw or Blake [Shelton] or someone like that,” John said, craving the big country rock sound a real concert tour can deliver. “He’s really good. I think he’s got it.”

Audio and video of the Gallaher show was recorded. Richard, the inmate who has learned audio/visual skills, will edit the footage down and put it into rotation on SCI Chester’s internal cable television system. He says other inmates often request a rebroadcast.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that Ben Gallaher began playing at the prison in 2011, not 2001 as previously reported.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal