From Bible Belt Outlaw to Rock-n-Roll Minister in Recovery

By Seth Ferranti 07/06/16

Johnny Evans was well known in the prisons and underworld of his home state. From the early age of 10 he was experimenting with narcotics and alcohol, but he's found peace in music.

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From Bible Belt Outlaw to Rock-n-Roll Minister in Recovery
His higher power and music have become his recovery. via Author

It takes different things and reasons for people to change—Johnny Evans, a 53-year-old federal prisoner from Alabama, being no different. Evans was a religious man by nature, something he discovered early in life, but a battle with his own vices always seemed to get the best of him. In and out of jails, chasing drugs, committing crimes and getting rip-roaring drunk, Johnny Evans was well-known in the prisons and underworld of his home state. He’s always had a reputation as an outlaw that would get down at a moment’s notice.

“My life was chaotic, filled with drugs, alcohol and violence,” Evans tells The Fix. “At an early age I had asked Jesus into my heart, so I know Jesus knew me. But only part of me wanted to know Him. The other part of me was fueled by the devil's charm, which caused a constant struggle between good and evil. It was a battle that I lost for years until I totally surrendered to God's will.”

Before that moment, Evans was hell-bent on pursuing a path of self-destruction. Destroying not only his own life, but others' as well, as the waves of negativity perpetrated a ripple effect created by the combination of drugs and alcohol that he kept in his system on a daily basis, year after year. From the early age of 10 he was experimenting with narcotics and alcohol, on a downward spiral that plunged him into the despairs of addiction. 

“My mother raised my two sisters and brother and I by herself,” Evans tells The Fix. “My father was hardly ever around. Momma tried, but I ended up in and out of jail early in life. I had my first taste of whisky when I was only 10 years old. I went to jail for an assault with a pipe at the age of 12. That was the first of many assaults I've been charged with over the years. I started smoking pot at 13. I stuck the first needle in my arm when I was 16. My first prison sentence was 10 years for burglary and robbery when I was 19 years old.”

But it was in prison that Evans rediscovered his love of singing and performing. He’d always dabbled with instruments—a little guitar, some piano and the like, but drugs and alcohol kept him from fulfilling his potential. He fancied himself a singer/songwriter, but he never had time to hone his craft. It got in the way of his drug habit. But when he got out after that first bid, it was on. 

“When I got out of prison I joined a rock 'n' roll band and went on the road playing from city to city, state to state,” Evans tells The Fix. He was living the dream—not like he was a big rock star or anything, but he was doing something he loved. The problem was he couldn't shake the violence seemingly ingrained in him from his past.

“My violent bad boy ways landed me in jail more than a few times,” Evans says. “I finally got charged with attempted murder for using a machete. I was found guilty and went back to prison at 26 years of age. This time I left a wife with a baby on the way, which was our first child. After that I got out of prison and stayed out for 14 years, but not without facing a judge numerous times and facing multiple life sentences due to my violent behavior.”

Something had to change. Johnny Evans seemingly had a death wish. If it wasn’t prison or the law that killed him, it might be his own reckless actions. When Evans used drugs or alcohol, he didn’t care about anything. He didn’t care about himself. He was an empty shell. He needed something, and it was religion that helped him get off drugs and alcohol and turn his life around. 

“I first met Jesus after attending a little country church that I was invited to by the preacher's daughter when I was 15 years old,” he says. “All through the years Jesus never left my side, even though at times he wasn't really on my mind. I was running through the criminal underworld, but that running ended when I landed back in jail for another attempted murder charge in 2002. I got out on a $110,000 bond and got my family back in church. The feds picked up the gun charge from the state and I went on the run again.”

Two weeks before Johnny Evans was apprehended, he took his wife and kids to a church camp with their church youth group. The last night there he was invited to come up on stage before the band came on, to play the piano and sing one of his songs. Evans gave a brief testimony of his shattered life before performing. After the song ended, the preacher had an altar call. 

“After seeing the altar packed with kids who were on their knees praying, I knew that music ministry was indeed my calling and I accepted that call,” Evans tells The Fix. “Shortly after in 2003, I was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. I have been promoting the Gospel through my music while doing time ever since.”

His music plays a big part in his recovery and helps him stay focused. Over the years he has done a lot of soul-searching, and he thinks his music and the lyrics he writes helps not only himself, but others too.

“This isn’t only for my soul, but for all the lost souls who I hope to reach through my music with a message of hope,” Evans says. “I have been clean and sober for 12 years. The compound is where I get to preach to the un-churched. That has been the bulk of my ministry throughout my prison stay.”

Johnny Evans says that his fellow convicts not only accept the message he’s sending, but they embrace it and encourage him to keep it up and not stop writing songs of hope. That alone has been enough to help him carry onward, trudging through the realities of his incarceration, and he looks forward to playing every concert he can.

“I got clean a year before I started this prison term,” Evans tells The Fix. “I have had every opportunity to do drugs or drink as much alcohol as I wanted. I can truly say I’ve been delivered from the desire. I am clean from the inside out.”

His higher power and music have become Johnny Evans' recovery—from a drug and alcohol-addicted, hell-raising outlaw to a man in prison leading a music ministry to help others change as he did. Johnny Evans knows he has come a long way, but he still has a ways to go, with his past a constant reminder of how far he has come.

“I would have a hard time remembering all of my convictions over the years, but these are the ones that I do remember,” he tells The Fix. “Two DUIs. Possession of marijuana. Disorderly conduct. Theft of property. Burglary. Robbery. 13 assaults. Two attempted murders. I'm in prison on a federal firearm charge right now. I've done 13 years on this charge and I have served a total of 17 years behind the razor wire.”

Recovery can bring about beautiful changes in a man. But looking back, Evans has had some regrets. He looks at the pain and losses he has endured.

“All these convictions have caused a lot of regret over the years. Especially this last one, when I left my wife and two children alone to face the world,” Evans says. “Also my father passed away the same day I got this prison sentence in 2003. My younger brother, Little Cecil, also passed away shortly after that, and my mother passed away in 2011. My grandmother, Momma Mary, died in 2014. I wished I could have been there for my family during these trying times.”

But with his release last month, Johnny Evans is more than ready for the world and he has made some concrete plans.

“My plan is to take the music ministry that I've been doing behind the razor wire for over a decade now, to the streets,” he tells The Fix. “I hope to connect to a group of people who are willing and motivated in helping me promote the Gospel one song at a time.” 

Music plays a major role in his life and is a big part of his recovery. 

He writes lyrics that are a clear reminder of where he’s been and how far he has come. His music and recovery has become his faith. They are the bedrocks that coincide with his higher power, allowing him to live drug and alcohol-free. 

“I have been a drug pusher, but I'm not what some call a Bible pusher,” Evans tells The Fix. “However, I try to walk the talk I talk, and take every opportunity to tell how good life is because of my recovery and the love of Christ.”

A lot of those opportunities come at concerts in prison where his band performs riveting rock 'n' roll showcases—performances that Johnny Evans will continue to put on when he reenters society. 

Check out Johnny Evans Myspace page.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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