David Beebe, a DJ at Marfa Public Radio, knows a lot of music – enough to fill a three-hour slot every Tuesday night with just blues, funk, and R&B, genres he knows inside-and-out from growing up in music-rich Houston and playing in bands for 20 years.
Even still, every now and then, a listener asks Beebe to play a song on his show Night Train Express that he’s never heard of – and from a place you might not expect.
Like clockwork each week, a group of music aficionados living behind bars has been sending him requests from inside the James Lynaugh Unit, a prison located outside Fort Stockton with 1400 inmates. They want to hear largely forgotten funk and soul from the early 80s like Slave and other mementos from the blues wheelhouse.
This is all possible because inmates are allowed a personal radio with headphones if they stay out of trouble.
Assistant Warden Ralph Marez says the radios are transparent to avoid contraband issues, and the prisoners are free to listen to them “so as long as it’s on their own time.”
On Tuesdays at 10:06 pm sharp, dozens, if not hundreds, of inmates do just that by listening to Night Train. Fort Stockton has only a handful of radio stations and genre-specific shows are few and far between.
Forty four year old Paul Fearce from Austin is one inmate who listens religiously. Paul has been in jail for three years on an assault charge stemming from a bar fight and says the show makes him think of better times.
“Takes me out of here, man,” Paul said inside of the visitation center. “Cause you know I’m a blues man. When I listen to the station, to the show, it kinda takes me home so…That’s my escape.”
Paul’s fiance Deborah Taylor also listens. She lives more than 300 miles away in Austin and doesn’t get to see Paul much.
“It’s kind of our like our quality time, our date time together,” Deborah says. “We listen to the show together. He’ll ask me if I heard this or what did I go to sleep because he played this. That’s our quality time together.”
After Paul and Deborah realized Beebe takes song requests over email Paul started telling her over the phone the songs he wanted to hear on air.
“It makes me feel good that I can make him feel good,” Taylor says. “I can still do something for him whether he’s there or here at home.”
Before long other prisoners got in on the action.
“Word round here spread real fast,” Fearce says. “They say ‘Man did I heard you played that song on the radio?’ I said, ‘Yeah my wife emailed David Beebe and he played…’ And he said, ‘Hey man why don’t you get him to play this play that?’ I said, ‘I’ll ask.'”
Beebe listened. One night he burned through 12 requests from an email from Deborah, and he’ll occasionally stretch his show even longer than three hours to accommodate the requests.
Then he has to wake up to report for his day job as Presidio County’s Justice of the Peace. He visits the county jail three or four times a week and has a sense of what the songs mean to the Unit.
“This goes out to all our friends in Fort Stockton,” Beebe says one night. “This first shout out goes out to y’all. Gonna shout out to you again. Boy you left me with a lot of good songs. A lot of good songs.”
Paul will have finished serving his sentence at the Lynaugh Unit 2016. He says he’ll keep listening to Night Train Express when he’s out. At home he’ll be able to call up the radio station and speak with the DJ directly.
– Asa Merritt and Graham Dickie