Michael Tenneson, an inmate at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in CaÃ±on City, says he spent two years lobbying the jail for a music room. Eventually, an interim warden agreed to his plan and a room was created, but it was handed over to two other inmates to run – both white supremacists. Tenneson, who is white, had organized a group of black, Native American, Jewish and gay musicians, so he had to make sure the white supremacists weren’t there when it was time to use the hall.
Tenneson and his fellow musicians didn’t need the space just to let off steam or play guitar during recess. The group had been brought together to record an album – one produced by a record company that would ensure their music goes beyond prison walls.
This album – called “Tlaxihuiqui”, which means “call of the spirits” in the Uto-Aztec language of Nahuatl – was recorded over four days and released by Die Jim Crow Records in August. Die Jim Crow, based in New York and Philadelphia, claims it is “America’s premier label for former and current incarcerated musicians.” The label released their first EP of original music in 2016, featuring six songs recorded by inmates at Warren Correctional Facility in Ohio. On June 17, 2020, he released a full album by BL Shirelle, who had spent 10 years in prison in Pennsylvania, titled “Assata Troi”, which means “the one who fights is a warrior”.
The new album, featuring the reunited group Tenneson, begins with the startling sound of a traditional song performed by two incarcerated Native Americans, Phillip Archuleta and Gilbert Pacheco. The record proceeds from there in a style its creators call prog-Americana, a dreamlike tapestry of sound that, while it certainly holds itself together as an album, can also sound like a surprisingly eerie, electrifying and raw mixing tape. Structurally, the songs are bold – in some cases, mixtures of ballad, hip-hop, country, soul, and blues reside in a single song – and are fragrant with instruments as diverse as organ, flute. and the alto saxophone. Lyrically, these songs fight the personal and systemic trauma of the marginalized – racism, crack addiction, sexual abuse and mass incarceration – but the words are always backed by the hope of redemption.
While some overdubs were performed by musicians in Nashville and at various home studios across the country, most of the vocals and instruments were performed by the seven people incarcerated in Colorado. These include several sentences of life imprisonment. Tenneson, who is one of the album’s vocal anchors, is serving several life sentences after being convicted in 1988 of five counts of murder.
Over the phone, Tenneson displays a restless and penetrating intelligence, compounded by a clearly suppressed need for self-expression. He was dumb when he was a kid, he tells me, that he thought he was mentally handicapped, and it wasn’t until he was 10 that he had surgery that freed his tongue from the bottom. from his mouth, allowing him to form words.
“You couldn’t shut me up afterwards,” he jokes.
During our conversation, Tenneson relishes feasting me on a long list of his musical influences, which range from classic rock and Motown to jazz and blues, but it doesn’t take long before he connects this thread. to a discussion of his crimes.
âUnfortunately, rather than channeling my whole being to perfect my craft,â he says, âI wasted my life on drugs, alcohol, stupidity and destroyed the lives of many innocent people. “
The conversation comes and goes like this. Tenneson talks about the joy of the creative process and sense of community he found with other incarcerated players, especially Kevin Woodley, a man who, on the outside, had for decades led blues bands and jazz bands around Chicago. Woodley improvised the entirety of “Mama’s Cryin” – a true star of the album – in one cover of a riff that Tenneson offered on guitar. âI cried while I played the guitar,â Tenneson says.
âTears are falling from my eyes. In the song, in a tender and passionate falsetto voice, Woodley sings: “Children dyin ‘/ Mama’s cryin’ / Cause daddy’s lyin ‘on the floor / Bullets flyin’ / The policemen lyin ‘/ Said he had a gun in his hand / Can you not see that I am a man too?
A few minutes after recalling the happiness of this moment in the studio, Tenneson struggles again with his past. “I haven’t lived a single moment since I committed my crimes against these innocent people that I’m not crushed with remorse, shame and regret,” he said. âMusic is the only way for me to try to express it with more than words. “
The album bristles with this tension. The underlying screaming need for redemption makes it less of a simple musical experience and more of a deep leap of faith. Phillip Archuleta of the Southern Ute Tribe, sentenced to over 52 on various assault charges, describes burning a stick of sage and using an eagle feather to perform a ritual cleansing ceremony at the start of recording sessions : âWhen I went there, I dirtied everyone and said a prayer. It was good. It was as if the Creator had told me, âOK, now is the time for you to return some of this medicine to whoever wants to listen to it. Because that’s what it is. It’s medicine.
Songs rise and crawl, rage and plead, plead and proclaim, revealing the soul in search of a melting pot incarcerated within the confines of our own body politic. “It’s supposed to make you ask yourself tough questions,” Fury Young, Die Jim Crow executive director and album producer, told me. âBecause prison is not easy. … But what people are is more complex than the worst mistake they’ve made, isn’t it? After listening to the album, “I hope people come out of it with some kind of evolution,” he says. âIt may not be positive. It may not be quite hope. But a sort of evolved way of thinking about prison and humanity … and maybe forgiveness in a way, too.
The word “sorry” comes up several times in the conversation with Tenneson. âI don’t deserve it,â he said. “What I have done is even beyond my own ability to forgive myself one day.” Yet he also tells me about a card he received every Christmas for five years after his first incarceration, sent to him by the grandmother of one of the men he killed. Tenneson told me that the card said, âJesus loves you and forgives you and me too. I hope that one day you will learn to forgive yourself. God bless you. “Surprised,” he said, “that a woman could write something like this to the man who had so mercilessly stolen the young life of her beautiful grandson …”
As “Tlaxihuiqui” is a musical document, its reception will depend to a large extent on the musical tastes of the listener, but its acceptance – certainly more than any record I have ever heard – will depend on the player’s own relationship. listener with the idea of ââforgiveness, who deserves it, who obtains it and how much we have in our hearts.