Peering through the cracks of the fence, John Gay could see the life he wanted.
He had no money. No way to get where he wanted to go. The only thing he had of value was faith in music.
At that moment, looking through the fence and hearing Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead play at Alpine Valley, Gay was a free man doing what he wanted. Something he was searching for in life.
“Here I am at this pivotal point in my life. I can go to college, but I kind of want to (follow the Grateful Dead) to San Francisco trying to sell a grilled cheese to get home,” he said.
And it’s that feeling of being free he chased, following rock shows and living a carefree life, getting high and experiencing something.
He chased that freedom to Kentucky, where he lived among nature — learning how to grow marijuana in the Daniel Boone National Forest that offered the solitude he wanted.
“I was living here (in Wisconsin), but I had relatives in Kentucky growing weed. And I visited them,” the Jefferson man said while sitting at a coffee shop in Fort Atkinson.
“Man, you guys live in the woods and got it made,” he thought. “All you have to do is go into the woods and make a round. Dream job.”
He was living a life of adventure and being chased by the National Guard that would cut the marijuana crops in raids.
“It was scary and frustrating,” Gay said. “Why am I doing this? Everybody’s lives were at risk.”
The work was back-breaking. But anything he puts his mind to, he does well.
He wanted to be a musician like the man he listened to behind the fence. But he also wanted to make money.
“In my mind, I wanted to be a musician or a pot grower,” he said.
But when he brought his growing operation to Wisconsin, knowing this state was dangerous in which to do that, he chased his goals of being successful.
The success, however, came with fame he never wanted. Not this type, at least. Soon, his name was splashed across headlines in newspapers statewide for the largest pot bust in state history. He also gained a name in jail as the “Godfather of Weed.”
Gay was up against a $1 million bond and 63 1/2 years in prison.
But something happened in the Racine County Jail awaiting trial. Something that didn’t fit his lifestyle. He thought back to his time in Kentucky and how he thought he was free. But he was really in his own prison.
Sitting in the coffee shop, Gay talked about his life in detail, a story that seems like something TV.
He is frank about his time chasing music, growing pot and making his way through prison. But this week, he is getting ready for an upcoming show at Fort Atkinson’s Café Carpe, where he will play all original tunes, many he wrote from behind bars. The acoustic show now takes him across southern Wisconsin, so much so that he now can say he’s a full-time musician.
He likes to quote Jerry Garcia and says no one is born to play guitar. The gift, he says, is the patience to learn how.
“You come to terms with the fact that you may never think you are that good,” he said.
His fascination with guitar started in Union Grove High School, where he played trumpet in the band. He said the teacher was like a rock star, encouraging him to try new things like guitar. But when a new, less-supportive band teacher came in, Gay said, he didn’t pick up the guitar until his late 20s.
After high school, he found himself listening to bands like Pink Floyd and followed them on a small leg of the tour.
“Taking pot, doing acid. All that stuff,” he said.
He also got married in 1993. The marriage, he said, got weird and was over by 2001.
But during this time, he started playing music and finding his sound on an acoustic guitar. He also lived with Milwaukee musician Willy Porter for a short time and even was listening to the Indigo Girls.
“I was trying to learn how to play in those early years. I didn’t have any grand design,” he said.
He also started to grow marijuana.
“I was smoking weed and started to grow a plant here and there,” he recalled.
Gay was working in the sales business for a radio station and for a theater company doing advertising. But what he really wanted was to express himself musically and make a meager living doing that.
He found himself moving to Kentucky, where his father is from. It was in the southeastern part, the Bible Belt, he said.
“My dad was a Marine and I looked up to him. But he drank once in a while and was one of those binge drinkers,” he said.
To get away, Gay would head out into the woods to find peace.
While there, he also started to understand the culture that went back to the moonshining days.
“Super-juicy story where there are generations down there. There were generations that were moonshiners. And they would get into it with the law,” he said. “That generation had kids. And their kids became pot growers.”
Gay purchased some land his aunt owned and tried his hand at growing marijuana, which set off a cat-and-mouse game with the National Guard.
“It was very adventurous. When the choppers are coming, and they are looking for you,” he said.
“They shot all my dogs.”
Nowhere to run
He knew it was wrong to move back to Wisconsin. He also knew it was wrong to get involved with someone while growing weed.
But that has never stopped Gay from following through on a simple plan.
In 2005, he moved back to the state and bought some land.
“I thought it was always kind of crazy to grow in Wisconsin. There was no real running chance if the heat were to come up on you,” he said.
In time, he started to grow more weed here, which was a challenge with nature in the Badger State.
He also hired some people to help him strip the weed.
But with the downturn of the economy by 2008, Gay was not really making big bucks.
“Kind of a struggle. Buying the land there is debt involved. And the economy tanked. Financially, times were tough to keep up with the mortgage,” he said.
Things, however, were starting to come around by 2011.
“There ended up being this dynamic. Two women were working for me and expressed interest in me,” he said. “And I had given up on women after the divorce. I was afraid of that. Because I know that’s how people get busted.”
One of the women got jealous.
“And she called the cops,” he said.
That’s a ton of weed
No one ever seems to guess how much weed the largest bust in the state is when asked to guess.
But it’s a number that Gay does not forget.
“They said they had found 1,800 and some pounds,” he said. “That’s a ton of weed, was the big headline.”
He was drying the stuff when the door on his house came crashing open on Oct. 31, 2011. The authorities announced themselves.
While Gay was not quite fully awake yet, law enforcement entered his home.
“Oh, this is going down,” Gay said.
During questioning, Gay was asked about the ton of weed in his warehouse, and he told authorities he didn’t see how it was in his best interest to answer that.
He also didn’t consider the media attention he was about to get. He was isolated in a jail cell where you “don’t get out ever,” he said. “The food comes through this slot three times a day.”
While in jail, he didn’t realize he also was the lead headline for three days in a row on all the television stations.
By the fourth day, he got sent to Section 4D in the Racine County Jail. And he already had celebrity status, for which he was unprepared.
“Oh, you’re the Godfather of Weed,” one inmate said.
“Oh, no,” Gay said of what was going through his mind.
“You’re the dude with a dump truck full of weed.” he said to himself. “This is horrible.”
The status, however, made his time survivable because he was not subject to attack. No one was about to go after the weed man.
And in this cell is where he would stay for the next year of his life. No sun. And visits with his attorney who was trying to convince him to plead guilty.
Gay wanted to fight the charge on the grounds of an illegal search. The authorities didn’t have a buyer; they didn’t find a patch.
“No one was really in trouble. This was all out of spite,” he said about the woman who made the phone call to authorities.
A fellow inmate took him under his arm and started going over Bible verses.
“Pride comes before the fall,” Gay said. “And it broke me. I saw that I needed to get over myself. Learn what God says to do and do it.”
Ironically, Gay says, he was sensing in his conscious that the discipline of prison was evidence of God’s love.
The inmate walked Gay over to a dusty stack of Bibles to get his own.
“And we dig out a Bible for me. And I read it cover to cover. And I never looked back,” he said. “And that set the tone for my time.”
Rekindling an old flame
The sentence Gay was facing was astounding, and his lawyer was trying to mitigate his exposure. If this goes to trial, Gay knew he would do maybe 20 years and be made an example.
“He encouraged me to plead guilty,” he said. “And after much resistance, I did.”
Gay was sentenced in November 2012 to nine years, with six of those behind bars and three on probation.
Racine Circuit Court Judge Wayne Marik did not buy the defense that he was a product of the recession, or that this was a small business.
“You almost seem to demonstrate a feeling of pride in the success and the scope of the operation you were engaging in as much as if you were a soybean farmer,” Marik said at the time of sentencing.
“I was locked up with people who shot people,” Gay said. “And that made me angry for a while.”
While he couldn’t have a guitar while in jail, Gay started writing poetry and songs. He even would sing a cappella.
By the time he was sent to prison in Fox Lake, he was in a section with 150 other inmates.
“It was dicey,” he recalled.
Anytime he saw a bully on the block, Gay always butted heads with that person. They were stealing from others, he said.
To make the time go faster, Gay found that prisoners could buy their own guitar for $100.
“It was a junky guitar. But it was a guitar, man,” he said.
To play in the music room, you had to have seniority. So Gay found himself playing out on the patio, even during the winter with guards listening in.
Then one day, another prisoner invited him to the music room to play. While Gay wasn’t into the hard rock sound the other inmate was, he found an outlet for a band.
“And the guys were so encouraging,” he said. “That was the one bright spot of prison.”
Many of the inmates would tell him he needed to get out and follow his music dreams. Do it for all of them.
A slew of songs came out of Gay during this time. Many he wrote with his friend, who is still in prison.
His songs were about loss and redemption.
When you’re in prison, Gay says, you are cast away. And that feeling came through in his songs.
He also continued his Bible studies.
While listening to 90.3 FM while in prison, Gay heard a radio program led by Pastor Jeff Solwold from the Calvary Church in Madison.
“I do a lot of volunteer prison ministry. We have a radio program here. John and others had been listening in the correction facility he was in,” Solwold said.
Gay was leading worship at the prison. When Solwold would visit for a service, he also sat in with the band as a bass player.
“They are pretty good. There are a lot of good musicians locked up,” he said.
The situation was professional and there is not much time to talk with the prisoners, so Solwold didn’t know what happened to Gay after he was transferred. And he didn’t see him for about two years.
In January 2017, Gay was released from prison.
“One day he came walking in the church and he started attending,” Solwold said.
There was a church band, but Gay never asked to play. Something many musicians do, but this is not a performance. This is worship, Solwold said.
“I approached him after several months. ‘When are you going to share your gift?’” he said. “I got to know John on a whole other level than just in prison. Great guy. I love him.”
Nowhere to go
He was paralyzed with indecision. Standing in Walmart, or simply trying to pick something off a menu at a restaurant.
In prison, Gay says, everything is done for you.
He came to a friend’s house in Jefferson to stay and get his life back on track, a city where he still lives today.
“You are trying to engage. But you are in a cloud. And can’t find your way back,” he said.
Socially, he felt like he couldn’t relate to anyone.
“People could tell I had drifted off,” he said.
The government had seized everything he had, except land in Kentucky that he still owns today.
He started to get work, but also kept his prison guitar and continued to write. After a year on the outside, he played his first show in Milwaukee in 2018. It was difficult to stay in the song, in the moment.
“It was surreal to be out there doing what I had been doing,” he said.
His faith being a musician was growing.
Once he quit doing trade jobs, he focused on his music extensively.
The music gigs are coming more steadily now and this Friday he will perform at Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson — a show that will focus on the music he wrote.
Over the last year, many of the gigs have wanted cover songs, music people know. But now Gay is getting to showcase his songwriting and his voice.
And he has a story to tell, through his music and words. Sometimes he has played only for tips as background music. But sometimes he mentions to the crowd that the next song is one he wrote in prison. And he soon has their attention.
He has a look of a heavy metal guitarist, but his music often is much different.
“Yeah, I often say ‘why didn’t I do this. Why didn’t I start playing guitar when I wanted to?’” he said. “The regret isn’t really sharp.”
He looks at the years of growing up, finding jobs and growing weed — even the prison years — as an experience to write about. He wouldn’t be where he is today without that. And without all the good things that came from that.
The things he has done best in his life are the things he has done solely. When he concentrates on one thing he does that well.
“And I did it well to a fault,” he said.
His goal now is to get back into a studio and record an album from all the music he has written.
But Gay, who is now 52, knows that label — “Godfather of Weed” — will follow him.
His days now are spent trying to have a normal life, one with a new wife he married in September. He submitted to God and amazing things happen to him, he said. And maybe he had to sit in a prison cell for years to realize that.
“I want people to be inspired by the story. My story,” Gay said.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to shows and tripping on acid and stuff. And I’m free.’ I really wasn’t,” he said. “I kind of knew better about a lot of things. But I did stuff anyway.”