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Soul Music

A former inmate goes full circle by taking his gospel band into jail.


On the other side of the room, the three-piece gospel band Heart and Soul finishes setting up. Randy Webb, the main reason all these people are coming together today, introduces his band: Carl Walden, "82 years young," wiry and spry with his mandolin, and Phil Hughes, neat and well-dressed, arm around his upright bass. They both sport well-worn shoes. Then the singer introduces himself: "And I'm Randy Webb, a former inmate. I play guitar." Webb, here on his own frontier, wears cowboy boots.

"What I had to do was be whatever I had to be to survive," says Webb of his youth in New Kent County, growing up with "a blatant disrespect for the law," as he puts it. Webb, now 40, is stout and healthy, looking like a country troubadour with his long hair and eyes that darken or flash with the weather of his moods. He refers to his many fights with police, landing in jail for the first time at 18, drinking his way through the years after that.

His balance was music. He picked up the guitar when he was 7, played by ear and started performing gospel music in churches when he was 10. It didn't keep him out of trouble, he says, but it got him through it: "Seems like if I've got a guitar in my hand, I'm welcome wherever I walk. So I carry a guitar everywhere I go."

He started a window business at 24 and became a horse owner. But he managed to repeatedly cross the law, drinking and fighting. His last time in jail, February 2002, he met Pastor Dimmitt, senior chaplain of Jails East and West, through the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, a worldwide missionary organization that provides chaplains who address the spiritual needs of inmates. They, as Dimmitt says, act as "go-between to meet that need. ... so that everyone's religious rights are met."

It was Dimmitt who would help Webb bring his music into the jail. After his release, Webb was reading his Bible when he felt inspired to give something back. "I've been on both sides of the fence, and I've sat on top of the fence," Webb says. "I feel a responsibility to share with as many people as I can what God has shared with me."

He had the desire and he had the band. Two years ago, he'd met Walden while playing at the Highland Springs Church of the Nazarene. Walden had performed across the Richmond area for 40 years, doing dinner music at an Italian kitchen and playing gospel music with his wife at local churches. When she died in 2002, he continued playing with his sister.

Walden says he was impressed by Webb's ability when he saw him that day at the church. "I said, I've got to meet that guy," he recalls. That night the two of them went back to Walden's house and played until the wee hours. They formed Heart and Soul.

Phil Hughes, 61, joined in the last four years after playing with the Flatland Bluegrass Band. He met Walden at a local church, too. "I really liked the way Carl played the mandolin," he says. When the three men got together, Heart and Soul was complete, Hughes says: "We all just fell right in together and it clicked."

Heart and Soul continued playing at churches and for the popular Montpelier Gospel Chicken House music series.

But it had never played in the Henrico jails before. No band had.

There was an opportunity through the Good News Ministry, which holds religious services, offers speakers and gives out Bibles. "You really never know what's going to get to the inmates," Sheriff Wade says. "That's why we offer a wide variety of things for them."

In order to obtain permission for the band to perform, Pastor Dimmitt helped Heart and Soul arrange to play for Wade at the Henrico County Prayer Breakfast. Webb remembers the sheriff's teasing response to his request to play for the inmates. "He asked if I wanted to go to the jail or play from the jail," he says. "I said I wanted to go to the jail and play and be able to leave."

The arrangements were made, and it began to sound more like a tour than a simple performance. On Nov. 18, at Jail East, they'd play once for the men and once for the women, and at Jail West Nov. 24, play two services for the men and one for the women.

"They were overwhelmed," Webb says of the response to the performance on the 18th. "There were tears and there were smiles. ... For that moment in time, Jesus came down and took those people out of jail."

On the 24th, the day before Thanksgiving, Heart and Soul kicks off with "In the Lighthouse," playing gospel music stewed in a bluegrass broth. Wiry Walden grins as the mandolin flutters away with him; Hughes' bass thumps off the gym's gray cinder-block walls; and Webb plays his guitar with hands that have been broken five times. Their voices rise over the crowd of inmates.

"I'll fly away, fly away, O Lord, yes, I'll fly away. ..."

Some inmates tap their sandals, some bow their heads over their Bibles as the band rolls through songs. Chaplain Dimmitt comes up to sing with Webb on "Amazing Grace." Everyone stands, everyone claps. This is a song they all know. Singing the chorus along with Webb, who's been there with them, they are all standing in the same shoes. S

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