Blues behind bars

John Cassarino holds a guitar with many signatures he’s collected.

ROBERT LAYMAN PHOTO / John Cassarino after a long week’s work, John Cassarino relaxes on his couch with his dogs Leo and Danko, named after Rick Danko from The Band.

By George Nostrand

It’s a Friday evening and John Cassarino is relaxing on the couch with his three dogs in his man-cave slash music room. Surrounded by shelves of records, photos and memorabilia, he’s talking with the Reader about the Blues, The Band, local music, and how, in a small way, he has tied his love of music into the work he does at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility (MVRCF).

Cassarino is the coordinator of volunteer services at MVRCF. The facility offers a wide range of educational and volunteer programs, including bible study, A.A., and even a group that helps inmates to audio record stories that can be sent to their kids. There is a community high school program for anyone under 23 who doesn’t have a diploma. Last year, more than 180 volunteers provided close to 4,000 hours of service at MVRCF.

Live music is not a regular offering. It’s an occasional treat, that happens sporadically when it can be arranged by Cassarino. But when the musicians stop by, they are always well received.

“It’s not like Johnny Cash and ‘Folsum Prison Blues,’ with people dancing on the chairs and stuff,” laughs Cassarino. “The performers always comment about how respectful they are. Many come back again if they are in the area.”

Cassarino started bringing musicians into the facility back in 2002, after seeing bluesman Guy Davis perform in Woodstock, Vermont. Davis mentioned during his performance that he had played in other jails during his travels. Cassarino talked to Davis’ agent and he became the first musician to play for residents of MVRCF. Since then, there have been a number of musicians who have performed there, including locals like Duane Carleton, and traveling musicians like Eric Anderson.

To make it worth their while, Cassarino tries to set up shows out in the public, that musicians can play later in the evening. For a while, he was producing shows at the Brick Box, next to the Paramount Theatre. He’s also had musicians play at College of St. Joseph’s Tuttle Hall. This past year, he partnered with some folks who were working to revive the Rutland Coffeehouse Concert Series at the Unitarian Universalist church in Rutland.

“It works out good. Most of the performers are happy to do it,” says Cassarino. “Most of them are on their way to a bigger show in the area. We have a small budget, but if we can get them another gig, we can at least help them earn a couple extra bucks for travel or expenses.”

And it’s not just the inmates that enjoy the music. “The staff really like it too. It breaks up the monotony of the everyday stuff, so it’s good for inmates and staff morale…It relieves stress for everyone.”

Guy Davis will be returning to MVRCF on March 31 to perform prior to his show that evening at the Unitarian Universalist church in Rutland.

Cassarino says many of the musicians can relate to inmates’ struggles as well. “It’s not uncommon for the musicians to talk about challenges they’ve had.” The inmates also have a chance to ask them about their instruments, songwriting and life on the road.

“Some of the inmates have a lot of knowledge, and there are some great conversations that come up.”

Visit the Rutland Reader’s website to view online interviews with both John Cassarino and Guy Davis: