From Johnny Cash and the “Folsom Prison Blues” to B.B. King and “Live in Cook County Jail,” there’s an exclusive club of musicians who have taken their melodies behind bars. Now, Zach Williams, a Christian singer known for his song “Chain Breaker,” has added his name to the roster.
Williams recently debuted his latest album, “Survivor: Live From Harding Prison,” after performing six of his most popular songs for inmates inside the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville.
“I grew up an hour from where Johnny Cash was born, in Arkansas, and obviously that’s one of my favorite records,” Williams told Faithwire of Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album. “When we worked on the ‘Chain Breaker’ record, we were always talking, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool one day to go in and record some songs in a prison?’”
Five decades after Cash’s iconic album debuted, Williams released what he hopes will be as much of a gift to listeners as it was to him and the inmates he performed for earlier this year. Inside those daunting and seemingly insurmountable walls, Williams declared, “He’s a prison-shaking savior,” one of the lines from his well-known ballad, “Chain Breaker.”
HE'S A CHAIN BREAKER. My new EP Survivor – Live From Harding Prison is out now. It was an honor to make this EP. Find out more about it at https://t.co/IGEs6XqVzi
.#ZachWilliams #Survivor #PrisonEP #MySurvivorStory pic.twitter.com/AawxSzyqQ1
— Zach Williams (@zwilliamslive) September 15, 2018
For several years, Williams and his wife, Crystal, have worked in prison ministry, so recording music from inside an incarceration center has long been on his heart, though early on, he felt “unequipped” to minister to those in prison.
Then opportunity knocked.
The Nashville-based prison ministry Men of Valor, whose volunteers were already using some of Williams’ songs, reached out to the 37-year-old singer and asked if he would be interested in performing live for a group of inmates.
“You could tell every one of these guys were just grateful we were there,” Williams reflected. “They don’t get stuff like this very often. We weren’t going in and trying to exploit these guys or just do something to make a record. We just wanted to go in and hang out and play some music for these guys.”
“I think it came across that way,” he continued. “I think they had a respect for us. I got to share my story with these guys.”
After Williams and his team got the recordings they needed, he said they projected the lyrics to his songs onto the white cinderblock walls behind him and invited the inmates to sing along. “It was just like a wall between us dropped,” he said.
Williams said it was “a really cool experience” and “an honor” to spend time with the Nashville inmates because all it would take is a wrong decision made in a matter of seconds for anyone to be in their position. Thanks to Men of Valor, the “Fear Is a Liar” singer was able to give those men, if only for a few hours, “permission to have a good time.”
“I try to put myself in those guys’ positions when I’m in there because I see somebody’s dad or somebody’s son or somebody’s brother or uncle,” he explained. “There are so many people who are behind bars, and it’s just nice to be able to go in and share a little bit of hope with these people.”
Hope was at the center of Williams’ message.
Though he didn’t know exactly how to approach the recording process, or how to talk to the inmates when he went in, the recording artist said God “gave me the tools and gave me the words to say what I needed to say.”
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Those are the words Cash spoke right before he sang what was his first — and only — major hit at the time, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Williams, feeling a connection to Cash, began his performance much the same way.
With humility and hope, Williams gave those prisoners an escape. If only for a moment.
“It was pretty neat,” he said.