From artists like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to contemporary music of almost every genre, themes of imprisonment have appeared in song, at times playing a sometimes covert, sometimes overt, role. For example, from “Folsom Prison Blues” to At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, Cash not only reflected on the prison experience but also brought his music into the prison.
On a more symbolic level, themes of imprisonment and loneliness run deep in music, and these themes resonate deeply with LGBT musicians and fans. Local gay musician Chase Sansing knows a thing or two about feeling trapped and confined by his identity, but he also has some direct insight into that reality: Sansing’s ‘day job’ is as a corrections officer in Middle Tennessee.
The Metaphorical Prison
Sansing grew up knowing he was different in the rural south. “I'm from a small town, Macon Mississippi... I went to a small high school, a small community college, and you know, when you're from a small town and you're that different, when you even attempt to think about coming out, you first look around for people like you.”
Looking for role models or fellow travelers left Sansing feeling even more isolated. “Especially in small-town Mississippi,” he added, “you're hardly ever gonna find someone who's just out, that's gonna come up to you and say, 'Hey, I'm gay!' So it was hard.”
This feeling of isolation, which is a shared experience of so many LGBT youth, deeply affected Sansing, and would ultimately drive his passion for music to new heights. “I got into a depression to where it was like, 'Ok, I will never get to come out,’” he explained. “But I also got to the point where I thought that I'd never give myself the opportunity to come out, or fall in love with anybody, so I put all my interest in music … I'd let music be my love....”
While he had always had a love of music, Sansing said, “It grew to where it was more as time went on, and I pushed relationships away and focused more on music. Every time I wanted to come out, I just focused on music more.”
While music provided a temporary escape from his feelings, however, avoidance did not solve the underlying issues. “It even got to a spot where I was so depressed, so down, that my first year of college, I just completely... I just failed every class I took. There were attempts of suicide there,” Sansing admitted.
He remembers the day when he'd had enough: he came home from college, came out to his parents, and told them of the struggles that had led to deep depression. “I told my mom, then my dad came home,” he recounted, “and we had a big conversation.”
When he admitted to suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, Sansing’s parents sought help for him. “My mom took me to the clinic in my little home town. They sent us somewhere else, and we went there, and they sent us to the hospital in Memphis. I remember thinking that I didn't care what happened to me at that point, because my secret had just come out, and I thought, 'Somebody else can fight for it, and somebody else can decide what's gonna happen to me.'”
Ultimately Sansing would be admitted to the hospital, where he was confined to face one of the darkest moments in his life. “I stayed for two days,” he said. “I can't even explain my thought process there. I just remember thinking that if I accept who I am, this is where I would have to stay for the rest of my life, somewhere like this. I was that messed up thinking about it. I convinced myself that if I was gonna be like this, I was gonna be up in a house of crazy people..."
That stay in the hospital was the beginning of a turnaround. His parents accepted him, but there was some concern on their part about how family might react. For the next few years, his mother encouraged him to keep his sexual identity secret from their extended family. But as time passed he grew more comfortable with himself, the urge to come out, to break out of his personal prison, grew too.
Music was again essential in this process of self-acceptance. “From 2013–15, I was working on my first album in Nashville, and I began recording some of my songs… I got into some that raised some questions. I started feeling like, to be a musician, you've got to put your feelings out there and you've got to say some things... When you can't say them, you've got to play them, you know? So I decided to go through with that and put some songs on there that were questionable and kind of relatable to LGBT people and kind of expressed how I felt.”
“The most personal one would be 'Would You Love Me?' Before it was recorded it was called 'Would You Love Me If You Knew?' and that's pretty much the whole big question,” Sansing added. “'Ashes of a Boy' was a song I wrote back at home in Mississippi when I was sitting at home on my bed with my guitar, and that song was actually a prayer that I turned into a song. Those two are really the ones that really do something to me, but there are others...”
In the process of writing music, he hit upon a vein so deep that a song became something more. ”People always ask me what made me decide to write a book,” Sansing said of his autobiographical book, Backstage: The Truth Behind Me, “and my answer is always 'Because a song became too long!' I was writing this song and it just got so long, I was just like, 'This isn't a song, it's a book.' So I said to myself, 'Ok, I'm going to write a book.' Halfway through the book, I thought, 'Well damn, who am I writing this book to? If I'm going to write a book who's going to read it? This is everything about me...'”
With that swirling around in the background, personal tragedy would ultimately be the deciding factor. “What really made me say, 'Ok, it is what it is, my family can know, I don't care,'” Sansing explained, “was that on March 28 of last year, my cousin Lee, who was sixteen, had a baby daughter. Two days later he had a car wreck, and he died. That day I drove home and all my family was there. Everybody was crying, and that's when I looked at my family and thought, 'How could these people hate me? How could these people want to kick me out? How could these people want to push me away?'”
Ironically, though, that same day something strange happened. “And so on my way back to Tennessee I started getting random messages from people saying, 'We support you' and 'We love you' and all that. And I found out that my mom came out for me that same day.”
The Literal Prison
While Sansing spent most of his life breaking free from the chains he felt, much of his life was leading him toward a career behind bars. “I kind of developed a love there with criminal justice like I did for music. I love it but I cannot explain why,” he said.
His fascination with criminal justice was sparked early on. “When you're young and from a small town, you're always like, 'Where is that cop going?,' when they go flying by you. There's always nothing going on, so when something is going on everybody wants to follow the cop to see what's happening! So when one of our 12th grade teachers took us on a field trip to the Delta State Penitentiary, I was excited for it, but I didn't know that it was going to change my life.”
After community college, when Sansing transferred to MTSU, that interest was rekindled and expanded “My first year at MTSU my major was psychology. I was talking to my advisor, and she said, 'You could do social work, or be a police officer," and I literally busted out laughing when she suggested that. I couldn't see myself as a police officer or anything like that. But I said I would think about it. A few days later I changed my major to criminal justice… I actually failed my first criminal justice class--that was my first year of college and I already explained that--but I obviously passed the rest,” he added with a laugh.
Sansing began to gravitate toward corrections as his studies developed, and was fueled by documentaries he saw. “When I started taking more classes I loved it, and started watching documentaries and shows about prison and jail, I got even more interested in that field. I actually originally wanted to be a prison psychologist but that changed after I heard some stories....”
For Sansing, work in corrections has necessitated constant self-awareness. “With this field that I'm in, there's always a constant question that I deal with: am I able to do it?” he explained. “I'm a small guy, I'm not a big tall guy that's always loud. I'm probably the shortest guy working where I work. I hear it every day … and you've got to have your A-game on every day, because anything less makes you vulnerable...”
New Life, New Music
So since his first album was completed and Sansing found his niche in corrections, how has his music continued to develop? “I have actually finished recording my second album. I started recording cover songs to help myself in the studio, to help myself sing better and to help myself write better, to give myself a better idea of what I can write and what I can sing... I chose songs that were difficult songs, songs by Celine Dion and songs by Steven Tyler, songs that weren't usually the kinds of songs that I would write.”
According to Sansing, this exploration has helped him develop his style and voice. “So I decided to take those to the studio and sing the difficult songs for me, my way, and record them so I could hear my voice on them, to see how I could make my voice grow and see how much it would change my writing and my style of writing... And I've got to say that it has helped so much!”
While he isn’t sure when he’ll release the album, Sansing said there are some previews out there. “There are a few that are already on YouTube that are on the album, and everything is finished but the CD cover, but I don't know when I'm going to release that yet.” However, he has already started writing for his third album, his second of original music.
Sansing’s personal style is eclectic, so given his explorations with covers it will be interesting to see where he goes next. “It's definitely country, because I can't change that. I've tried to step outside of it as many times as I can, but country is always going to be my root, whether I like it or not. I definitely can have some rock to me—I've been told that many times in the studio—but I can also have some of that Celine style slip in... She's my favorite. This cover album, I've literally covered about four or five of her songs.”
As he moves forward, Sansing looking back on his struggle to be himself, says that while some things have changed after coming out and accepting who he is, much has remained the same. “Since I've come out, the passion for my music is still there, but the constant go at things has slowed down just a little bit, and it's actually a good thing. It feels like it's flowing now. It's caused me to relax.”
And he recognizes that he has been lucky in his coming out experience. “There's always gonna be people that disagree,” he said, “but I've honestly not had as many problems as I was told I was going to have, or thought I was going to have. The problems I did have were not many at all. There's always going to be certain people that you can point out that might show a different reaction, and it's sad to say that I was right about most of those.” Freedom has been worth that.
EXCERPTS FROM Backstage: The Truth Behind Me
“When you fight who you are and what you are feeling on the inside, you become almost invisible, or so I felt. I can't tell you how many times people in high school asked me, "Why are you so quiet?" Co-workers and classmates still ask me that to this day. Everyone thinks I'm shy, but I'm really not. I mean, how can a shy person stand on a stage alone and sing and play a song he wrote? Just because someone doesn't talk much, doesn't mean they are shy at all… it doesn't mean they don't have anything to say. I had too much to say, I just feared saying it."
When I talked to the psychologist in the hospital
"I remember the conversation clearly. I was sitting on my legs at the end of the hospital bed as the sun was just starting to set. It was bright. It was so bright. The sun filled the room with bright colors, mostly orange and yellow. It brought a warm feeling to the room. It almost felt like it was the beginning of spring right there in my hospital room. It was like a moment of peace. With me still on the bed, and the doctor still in the chair, he began to ask what were my favorite things to do. It was as if I were coming back to life again. I remembered how much I loved music and my dog, Rebel. I remembered how much I loved being with my family on Christmas Eve and how much I couldn't wait to get back in college. I was finally breathing in fresh air instead of fear. I felt peace as the doctor asked about music. I told him that I had just created my first album. He encouraged me to stick to it even though he hadn't heard anything from me. He must have seen the way I lit up. I told him that I could name every country singer that ever existed. He said, "Go for it." I started and didn't stop once to think. He was impressed. But as the sun finally had set, he stood up, shook my hand, and left the room. I never saw him again."
"If it takes me coming out of the closet to save a life, then that's what I have to do. I'm getting older now, and I'm no longer deathly afraid of myself like I was when I was a child. No one should have to live in fear like I did. It damaged myself as a person. I'll probably spend the rest of my life repairing myself, but I'll do it knowing that I am proud of myself because I am who I am."
"You know, people always say they wouldn't change a thing about their life, but is that really true or is that just something people say when they feel really positive or happy for a moment in their life? I ask that because I know I would. I'd definitely go back and make some corrections. I'd start with telling the truth. I'd tell myself that it's okay to be gay. It's okay that what I like to do is different from what everybody else likes to do. And most importantly, I would have accepted myself a lot sooner so I could enjoy life. I'd come up with a better choice than to attempt suicide. I would have told my parents sooner. I'd have done a lot of things. But although I have walked an uphill battle my entire life about my sexuality, I don't think I would change that part of me because if I had been straight, I'd be in a completely different world right now."