Matt Butler Has Found His Calling

Matt Butler has always embraced the unusual. After all, he was raised in the punk and hardcore music scene in New York City – a breeding ground for the misfits, the freaks, and the nonconformists who muddied the boundaries between music and mayhem. 

But then Butler discovered Springsteen, specifically Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a love-at-first-listen moment, ultimately pushing Butler to pick up an acoustic guitar and craft softer, working-man narratives. It’s also what led Butler to prison. 

No, Butler was never incarcerated. But an unorthodox tour schedule found the musician performing at a variety of non-traditional venues like churches, community centers, rehabs, and prisons. Butler, in fact, performed at over 100 prisons across the country, leading him to create his critically acclaimed one-man show and accompanying soundtrack, Reckless Son. 

In 2023, SPIN named Reckless Son one of the albums of the year. 

“While setting into a couple of Oregon prisons to witness [Butler] workshop this down-and-out song cycle, seeking feedback from prisoners as he did so, I came to know many of the lyrics along with the moods explored so genuinely on this album,” describes SPIN’s Matt Thompson.

“Each is a sketch of life gone awry–of “track marks and Jesus Christ tattoos,” of mothers burnt by junkie sons, of last-refuge shelters, of going home from a stretch with a stigma, of believing your suicide would be a kindness to your loved one. And judging by how I saw prisoners taking it in and talking after, it’s on the mark. Special work.

In crafting Reckless Son, Butler was inspired by his experiences inside places like Ohio’s Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Utah’s Gunnison Prison, and the New York City Department of Correction’s facilities on Rikers Island. It is a collection of music, monologues, personal history, and lessons learned from those behind bars. 

“People who have lost everything or have had everything taken from them are often truly in touch with what matters most,” Butler says during his show’s final stretch. 

Reckless Son is more than a show. And it’s more than an album. It’s a calling. “

“It’s a pledge,” as Butler says, “to bring healing through the arts to those behind the walls.” 

And for Butler, the work is ongoing. 

During the Fall of 2022, Butler began performing Reckless Son monthly at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, merging the worlds of theater, confinement, and the singer/songwriter circuit into a rare hybrid. Butler also founded Art that Serves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the arts to incarcerated populations. 

“Finding a larger purpose for my art really changed me as a human being,” shares Butler. “My goal for the non-profit is to try and pass that experience on to other artists.” 

Reckless Son wasn’t written for the incarcerated,” adds Butler. “It was written for those who haven’t had the privilege of meeting these people and hearing their stories for themselves. The show is as faithful a rendering of the truth of my experience as I can offer. The people in jail know their own story already. Reckless Son is more about getting that story heard.” 

Since finding his calling, Butler has collaborated with or been a featured performer at events held by The David Lynch Foundation, The Columbia Center for Justice, American Folk Art Museum, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and The Caron Foundation. He was also selected as an inaugural ‘Activist in Residence’ at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires. 

In addition to jails, prisons, and correctional facilities, Butler still performs at universities, high schools, and retreat centers. He has been an artist in residence at HB Studio in Manhattan and he has been featured on NPR Morning Edition, PBS, the Blue Situation, and in the San Franciso Examiner and the Richmond Times Dispatch. 

“I’ve never been the kind of writer who just sits down and writes a love song,” Butler says. “I’ve always been drawn to deeper, darker, more intense subject matter.” 

Butler is set to kick off 2024 by performing at APAP/NYC, the world’s premier gathering of the performing arts presenting, booking and touring industry and the annual members conference of the Association of Performing Arts Profession.