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In downtown Austin, Texas tomorrow, the annual South by Southwest Music Festival will crawl to a close. Among the most exclusive music events this year was an unofficial invitation-only affair at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

From member station KUT in Austin, David Brown reports.

DAVID BROWN: Even by the standards of South by Southwest, this seemed to be a stretch. A new startup non-profit contacted Austin area prison officials with an offer: what about bringing a little of the South by Southwest experience to the county correctional facility - something with a positive message? Captain Jerry Kovar, an ex-Marine in charge of security, made the decision.

Captain JERRY KOVAR (Corrections Officer): People thought I was absolutely crazy. I've wanted to bring a concert to the jail for a long time. Call it the old Johnny Cash, San Quentin prison type thing I grew up listening to with my parents. I jumped on it because I want to be a part of it. This is really big for me.

(Soundbite of prison doors)

BROWN: On Friday, an entourage, including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Wayne Kramer of seminal garage rockers the MC5 and British protest singer Billy Bragg wound past security doors and metal detectors...

(Soundbite of prison doors)

BROWN: ...to the prison chapel, lugging about a dozen guitars, several stenciled with the words Jail Guitar Doors. That's an initiative Bragg launched in the UK a few years ago to organize concerts and donate guitars to Her Majesty's prisons.

Tom Morello

Mr. TOM MORELLO (Rage Against the Machine): There's a history of success in UK with Billy, who runs this program there, and apparently it does have a marked effect on recidivism rates and sort of the change in the culture of the prison. This is something that can mitigate potential future problems.

BROWN: Billy Bragg says he'd been trying to find a way to launch Jail Guitar Doors in the U.S., and had been hoping to convince Wayne Kramer, the MC5 guitarist, to head it up.

Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Singer-Songwriter): And I said, listen, I'm doing this thing in Britain, getting guitars in the prisons. It's called Jail Guitar Doors, named after the Clash song. Have you heard it? And he said, yeah, I'm in it. I said how do you mean? He said, I'm in it, Bill. I said, what do you mean, youre in it? He said, Well, what's the first line? And I thought, oh - Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals in cocaine. I kind of felt like this tall.

(Soundbite of song, "Jail Guitar Doors")

THE CLASH (Rock Band): Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals in cocaine, a little more every day.

BROWN: In the Clash's 1977 Rebel Anthem, the co-author of such proto-punk songs as "Kick Out The Jams," Wayne Kramer is depicted as a kind of outlaw hero. In fact, as Kramer describes it, he was quite the opposite.

Mr. WAYNE KRAMER (Guitarist, MC5): MC5 had not survived success and I got lost. I developed alcoholism and drug addiction and I kind of embraced a criminal lifestyle. As a criminal, I'm a great guitar player.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRAMER: And, you know, I think I watched "The Godfather" too many times because I just wanted to drive around Detroit in a big car and carry a pistol and go to nice restaurants and talk about taking care of business, you know?

BROWN: Kramer was busted in 1975 trying to sell cocaine to undercover agents. He was sentenced to four years in federal prison. While there, Kramer explored every opportunity he could find for making the most of his time, from group therapy to college classes to immersion in music theory. It was, Kramer says, life-changing.

Mr. KRAMER: When I went to prison, it was at the end of the era of rehabilitation in American corrections and I've watched what happened in America's prisons for 30 years. And I realized I'm uniquely positioned in this country. I have one foot in music and I still have one foot in prison and I could be the bridge to make a positive change in this situation.

BROWN: With Kramer at the helm, yesterday's performance at the Travis County Correctional Center marked the official debut of Jail Guitar Doors USA. Before about 75 inmates, men and women, Kramer talked about the mistakes he'd made and fielded earnest questions about addiction.

Mr. KRAMER: I think the only thing that motivates me, I dont know, maybe you, to change is pain. And when I can't bear the pain anymore, then I'll change.

BROWN: And music as therapy.

Mr. KRAMER: Something's going to happen at some point out there after you get out and youre going to get tangled up. Things are going to get complicated. If you can take the guitar and sit down with the guitar and figure out how to talk about it in a song, it'll give you another way to look at things - another chance to pull back and say, okay, wheres the wisdom in the next decision I'm going to make?

BROWN: During the hour and a half long session, many in the chapel fought back tears as Billy Bragg sang "I'll Keep Faith in You."

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) Reach out, you'll find me there beside you all of the way because I keep faith.

BROWN: And then the whole room joined in song, including prison guards, as Bragg and Kramer led a version of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Unidentified People: (Singing) Any day now, any way now, I shall be released.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

BROWN: Jail Guitar Doors USA donated six guitars to the Travis County jail. Not a gift, they insisted, but a challenge to explore music as a path to rehabilitation.

Mr. KRAMER: People in prison are continually reminded that they're worthless, that they have no value in the world. And to create something - to create a song is a very powerful argument against worthlessness.

BROWN: At the end of the Friday show, corrections officials immediately approached Kramer, asking for a return visit next year, a gesture which seems to indicate both a successful launch of Jail Guitar Doors USA as well as a new South by Southwest tradition.

For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Austin, Texas.

(Soundbite of song, "Jail Guitar Doors")

THE CLASH (Rock band): One, two, three, four. Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals in cocaine, a little more every day

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