Songwriters Sing for Condemned Man’s Life

There was a sense of urgency at Monday’s (April 1) clemency rally for Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman that even the music of Emmylou Harris , Rodney Crowell , Beth Nielsen Chapman and others could not alleviate. Abdur’Rahman is scheduled to be executed April 10 in Nashville for a 1986 murder.

Held at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, the rally’s aim was to persuade Tennessee’s governor, Don Sundquist, to spare the condemned man’s life. Last week, the state’s Board of Probation and Parole voted unanimously to uphold Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence. Its recommendations, however, are advisory rather than binding.

Except for the performers, very few figures in the music business showed up for the rally. Among those who did were singer-songwriters Marshall Chapman and and Kevin Welch . While the crowd was slow in gathering, the house was packed by the time the music got underway.

“We’re here to give Abu-Ali the voice he never had,” declared Dixie Gamble, who hosted the event. “When do we stand,” she asked, “and say, ‘This is enough’?” Bradley MacLean, Abdur’Rahman’s lead attorney, observed that if the death sentence is carried out, his client will be injected by a “cocktail” of drugs, some of which Tennessee’s humane laws forbid to be used in the execution of animals. He also charged that the prosecutor deliberately lied during the trial.

Confronting the parole board, MacLean continued, “was like looking at medieval people, hateful people, contentious people.” He then read a letter he has sent to Sundquist that details his complaints against the board and asks again for clemency.

“We do not want Abu-Ali killed in our name,” said Naomi Tutu, head of race relations at Nashville’s Fisk University and daughter of South African activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu. Noting that one of the board’s members had told Abdur’Rahman, ’May God have mercy on your soul,’ Tutu countered, “It’s all so easy to throw it back on God. The responsibility [for mercy] is on us.”

Filmmaker Coke Sams showed the documentary on the case he produced primarily to lobby Sundquist for mercy. It is narrated by actor Mike Farrell and features supportive commentary from lawyers, psychologists, friends and family and two members of the jury that convicted Abdur’Rahman.

Providing the hour-long musical portion of the rally were Harris, Crowell, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Tom Kimmel, Mary Ann Kennedy and singer/guitarists John Jorgenson and Will Kimbrough. For the most part, the performers allowed their music to speak for itself. But Chapman, who conceded she knew little about Abdur’Rahman, said she simply opposes the death penalty in all instances.

Jorgenson sang one of his own compositions, “An Eye for an Eye,” which bears the refrain, “An eye for an eye, and the world is blind.” He said he and his wife wrote the song around the time Tennessee put Robert Glen Coe to death in 2000, the state’s first execution in 40 years. Before singing his “See Myself in You,” Kimmel wondered aloud if it isn’t our inability to recognize ourselves in others that leads to the willingness to execute.

Crowell introduced from his forthcoming album the songs “Earthbound” and “Fate’s Right Hand.” Harris, who has also been active in the campaign to rid the world of landmines, said she was moved by the audience’s compassion. Noting that she had come to Nashville in 1983 with the belief that it would be just another stopping point on her way to some place better, she admitted she had instead found a home. “I’m just humbled,” she said, “that I ended up in a place where there’s such good people.”

Set List

“Walls” (Mary Ann Kennedy, John Jorgenson)

“Long, Long Way From Here,” “See Myself in You” (Tom Kimmel)

“Sacred Path” (John Jorgenson)

“An Eye for an Eye” (John Jorgenson, Mary Ann Kennedy)

“Sand and Water,” “Dance to the Drum” (Beth Nielsen Chapman, John Jorgenson)

“Earthbound,” “Fate’s Right Hand” (Rodney Crowell, John Jorgenson, Will Kimbrough)

“Till I Gain Control Again” (Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Will Kimbrough)

“Prayer in Open D” (Emmylou Harris)

“Let It Be” (All)

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to