An album co-written by wounded combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lifts voices America needs to hear

By Bliss Bowen

There’s emotional logic in Mary Gauthier’s involvement with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a nonprofit that pairs wounded combat veterans with professional songwriters: Throughout her career, she has been renowned for not shying away from anguish or the risk of intimate rejection in her search for blunt truth. Now, five years into helping soldiers musically unfold their stories, she has released “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” an album of songs mostly co-written with soldiers. Collectively, they create a sense of hope and renewal, reminding that music serves a valuable function in society.

“I think we have the Civil War diaries of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gauthier says. “We’ve got the voices of our veterans in these songs.”

SongwritingWith:Soldiers, the program that yielded those compositions, is headquartered in Austin, Texas, with satellite offices in Nashville, Tennessee, and Albany, New York. “Our goal is to reach as many people as possible through retreats, the community that we build, and through our music, which is online (at songwritingwithsoldiers.org),” explains songwriter Darden Smith, who founded SWS five years ago with Mary Judd after performing at a military medical center near Landstuhl, Germany, and having his “world shifted around” by a music-loving Iraq veteran, Marine Lt. Col. Fred Cale. “This year we’re also participating in some research projects, looking at the impact of collaborative songwriting on post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.”

Three or four years ago SWS held a retreat in Long Beach; this year retreats are planned in Arizona, Colorado, New York, Texas and Virginia. The stable of participating songwriters includes Jay Clementi, Ashley Cleveland, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Radney Foster, James House, Gary Nicholson, Darrell Scott — and, of course, Gauthier, whose songs have been recorded by country superstar Tim McGraw, soul/blues diva Bettye LaVette and gospel shouter Mike Farris, among others. At each weekend retreat, Gauthier says, four professional songwriters help six to 10 veterans turn their stories into songs. The secluded beauty of the physical environments is key to helping soldiers open up creatively and emotionally. As abuse and assault survivors can attest, something as mundane as the placement of a chair before an open door, or the unplanned roar of a passing car’s muffler, can become a trauma trigger.

“These places are very, very safe, quiet, they’re in pastoral settings,” Gauthier says. “Chefs cook really good food. There’s a very comfortable sleeping quarters. I had a veteran with me this weekend [who] said he felt so safe because we were on top of a hill.”

As Gauthier describes the tender process of listening to combat veterans and then helping translate their experiences into rhyming song form, it becomes clear that songwriting does not help the soldiers “heal”; rather, it helps them to feel heard — to feel still present and accounted for, if you will. It’s a vital distinction.

Mary Gauthier’s “Rifles & Rosary Beads” features songs written in the round with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

“We would never call ourselves therapists, because we’re not,” she explains. “We don’t have the training or the license to be called therapists, but we are doing something that the veterans say is very helpful in their process; these songs help them to articulate what they’ve been through. I think that’s real important. It sounds like we’re playing word games but it matters a lot because there is a whole field called music therapy. We’re not doing that. We do have a therapist there on the team on the retreat in case someone goes into a state where they need to have the counseling, but we’re not it. We’re doing songwriting.”

Gauthier is a uniquely empathetic collaborator. From early albums like 1999’s “Drag Queens in Limousines” on through 2005’s widely acclaimed “Mercy Now” and 2014’s balm-like “Trouble & Love,” she has unflinchingly plumbed her conflicted experiences with adopted family, addiction, sexuality, alienation, and the struggle for integrity and balance. Songwriting, she often maintains, saved her life.

“I’ve used songwriting all along as a way of articulating my own trauma and struggle and challenges; my own life has had its own highs and lows and it started out pretty rough. I think that transforming trauma into art is transformational, and it does bring hope and it brings light into dark places. I think it is impactful in ways that just sitting and talking may not have … These songs become useful to other veterans who are struggling to articulate what they’re going through.”

Poignant and sometimes profound, the songs Gauthier co-wrote with soldiers — and some spouses — on “Rifles & Rosary Beads” are mined with emotional depth charges, their potency magnified by the melodies’ hymn-like simplicity. The gimlet-eyed, sometimes gothic confessionalism of Gauthier’s solo work is opened wide by walking in the shoes of soldiers, from the survivor guilt of “Still on the Ride” to the post-trauma adjustments depicted in “Soldiering On” (“What saves you in the battle/ Can kill you at home”). “Iraq” gives forlorn voice to military women victimized by fellow soldiers, while “The War After the War” movingly shines light on loyal partners lost in the shadows of deployed spouses’ honor and pain, who now must navigate their psychological “landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor.”

“Waitress asks me how I’m doing but I don’t know what to say
I was thinking bout the battlefield the night I learned to pray
Marchers wind their way down Main Street the crowd begins to cheer
I feel my chest exploding as my eyes fill up with tears
They thank me for my service and wave their little flags
They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back” —“Bullet Holes in the Sky”

Smith, who’d previously done conflict resolution work through songwriting with gangs and homeless teenagers, says his goal for SWS was a unifying “collaboration model” enabling soldiers to “see me seeing them.”

“The way I phrase it is ‘crossing over the imaginary divide.’ We believe that we are different from one another — in this context, civilians and military communities. As soon as we begin to remove that thinking, then it’s possible to find the commonality. Collaborative songwriting is a vehicle to make that happen.”

He says the SWS catalogue holds over 400 songs; Gauthier’s is the first album to emerge from that, but Smith doubts it will be the last. Even though recording albums is not the point of SWS, he notes that “Rifles & Rosary Beads” is already expanding their community, and making more people aware of the program. He says a portion of Gauthier’s album sales is donated to SWS, and the participating soldiers were registered with ASCAP as co-writers so they receive publishing revenue.

Apart from SWS, Gauthier recently signed a book deal with St. Martin’s Press and continues to give songwriting seminars with peers like Darrell Scott. A Louisiana native who makes her home in Nashville (“Hit Town”), she offers advice to students that echoes her one-on-ones with soldiers: be vulnerable, avoid platitudes and “duct-taped happy endings,” and be brave enough to tell their own, real story.

“I really don’t think that escapist entertainment is the only use for the art. We forgot something that the ancients knew all along: that songs can help sing home people who can’t find their way home. Songs are incredibly powerful. They go to the core of what it is to be human. We may even be made of music. The vibration of life itself might be music; there’s a whole legitimate scientific theory that proclaims that, string theory. Escapism has its place; this is the opposite of escapism. This is going to the wound, like a fireman going to the fire, and bringing music to the site of the injury and singing the pain. It has an impact and I think it’s a beautiful way of reaching a hand out and reconnecting with people who are suffering. …

“My job as a teacher is basically repeating what Woody Guthrie taught: Your job is to comfort the disturbed, and that will disturb the comfortable and you’re gonna have to deal with the consequences of that. But if you are comforting the disturbed you are doing your job. These veterans, these young women and men, are dealing with traumatic brain injury, loss of limb, PTSD, they’ve been injured and their careers have been ended — they want to still be in the military. They lost their career, they lost their livelihood, they lost their identity, they’re suffering. These are the people who are disturbed. So my job as a songwriter is to just get their story told. Get their story into a song and sing it. That’s my job.”


Mary Gauthier performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Friday (March 23) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $26.50 at mccabes.com.

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