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See Darius Rucker Play Singing Prisoner Johnny Bragg on ‘Sun Records’

Grand Ole Opry member guest stars as a real-life inmate and lead singer of Fifties vocal group the Prisonaires

Darius Rucker, who has guest starred on TV series like CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 (as a bomb-builder) and CMT’s Still the King (as Jesus) makes another CMT appearance this week, playing real-life singer Johnny Bragg of Fifties vocal group the Prisonaires on Sun Records. In an exclusive clip from the episode, premiering Thursday, March 23rd, Bragg and the Prisonaires sing a cappella as they are led in shackles into the Sun studios. Elvis Presley (played by Drake Milligan) is spotted too, driving by in a pickup and smiling as he hears the group. (Watch the clip above.)

With 20-foot walls, topped with five feet of electrically charged barbed wire, the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville was built to keep its inmates shielded from the public – and vice versa. Yet, in 1953 five of the facility’s infamous residents suddenly became very public figures for something that had nothing to do with their crimes. The unlikely story of the Prisonaires is the focus of this episode of Sun Records, with Rucker stepping into the shoes (and stripes) of Prisonaires lead singer Johnny Bragg, who made records for Sam Phillips and the Sun label at the same time as he was serving a sentence for six counts of rape.

A singer since childhood, Bragg had been incarcerated in 1943, at age 17, and had joined a gospel quintet in the prison shortly after his sentence began. After a falling-out, he and two of that group’s members, Ed Thurman and William Stuart, both doing 99-year stretches for murder, began singing with a pair of recent arrivals, John Drue and Marcel Sanders. As the Prisonaires, the group was discovered by radio producer Joe Calloway, who was putting together a news report from the prison. With the assistance of warden James Edwards, Calloway gave them a performance slot on the radio.

Phillips had the group transported via armed guard and driver to Memphis to record at Sun Studios, where they cut the melancholy “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,’ a doo-wop hit with unforgettable vocal harmonies. Then-Tennessee Governor Frank Clement felt the group would be a valuable asset in his ongoing prison-reform program, and the Prisonaires later sang for a number of celebrities and dignitaries, including President Harry S Truman.

“Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” which sold more than 50,000 copies upon its release on Sun, was later a huge pop hit for singer Johnnie Ray in both the U.S. and the U.K. But it was the Prisonaires’ version that was said to have heavily influenced young Elvis Presley in his decision to approach Sun about recording with the label. Presley signed to Sun the following year, and would visit Bragg in prison in 1961.The group would never have another hit, but the Prisonaires continued to record with Bragg as the only remaining original member, with other members moving on after serving their sentences. Bragg, whose sentence was commuted by Governor Clement, spent time in and out of prison until 1977. He died in Nashville at age 79 in 2004.

Sun Records airs Thursdays on CMT at


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