ANGOLA, La. (NBC Local 33) (FOX 44) — Under the blistering hot Louisiana sunshine in late October, thousands lined up to spend the day inside the country’s largest maximum security prison. Nestled among the craft tables of handmade inmate goods and homegrown food stands at the Angola Prison Rodeo, former “Dukes of Hazard” actor John Schneider was making history.
“It’s the first time in modern era that we’ve had a live musical performance at the rodeo,” said assistant warden Gary Young.
The Angola Prison Rodeo opened for spectators in 1967. Outside of cowboys reigning wild horses, you’ll find some of the best fried chicken gizzards east of the Mississippi River – that’s according to warden Darrel Vannoy. He was instrumental in deciding that the public could finally bring personal cell phones to the rodeo, something that hadn’t been allowed before Oct. 13.
Around the corner, the occasional popping noise blared from the stage speakers where Schneider strummed away, accompanied by harmonica great Tim Gonzalez. Inmates run the sound booth and aren’t accustomed to tuning for anyone other than the prison’s traveling band, ‘Guts and Glory.’
“I love the whole notion of a prison rodeo and I lived with Johnny Cash for a year and a half,” Schneider would later say. “John had gone out and played and changed many people’s lives through music, including his, by playing in prison.”
Folks were reminded of Schneider’s break-out role as ‘Bo Duke’ in “Dukes of Hazard” by the leather strap holding up his guitar. It bore a Confederate battle flag and “01,” mirroring decals of ‘General Lee,’ the orange Dodge Charger the Duke boys raced through fictional Hazard Co., Georgia.
Throughout the stage performance, inmates who are either low-level offenders or trustees meandered through the public in white shirts seemingly unphased by the humidity.
“Yes, this is a place where people have to do things to come here, but what happens after that isn’t just up to the inmates. There has to be a program to help them want to be better, want to have hope, want to change and want to help other people change as well,” said Schneider. “Angola is the premiere prison where that all started.”
Just as Schneider wrapped up his final song, a group of volunteer cyclists were wrapping up their 175-mile trek from New Orleans outside the prison walls. The ‘Nola to Angola’ fundraiser is an annual bike ride meant to bring awareness to the distance families must travel to visit a loved-one behind bars. The ride originated from the steps of the New Orleans criminal courthouse three days prior.
Leo Jackson, the founder behind the mission for Cornerstone Builders Bus Project, spent 32 years as an inmate at Angola. “During the course of that time, I learned how valuable a visit was,” said Jackson. “Upon my discharge, I wanted to provide free transportation for family members of incarcerated individuals.”
On Oct. 27, Schneider will return to the Angola Prison Rodeo, along with his band which just compiled the record, “Redneck Rebel.” The band is compiled of musicians who formerly played with Lynard Skynard and Sawyer Brown, Schneider said.
“I can’t wait for this band to experience (the rodeo) because the only idea you have of what a penitentiary is,” said Schneider, “is what the movies tell you.”
“I asked several of the folks here, ‘What is your number one fear?’ and they said, it’s to be forgotten. Programs like they have here at Angola keep that from happening.”