Through my work with The Be An Artist Program, I was asked by my friend Helen Patton in May 2008 to play at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, near Ramstein Air Base in Germany. American soldiers wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan usually are transported to Landstuhl, the largest American hospital outside the United States.
Playing in a hospital cafeteria for soldiers who’d returned from Iraq only days before wasn’t the easiest gig I’ve ever had. But it was there, as I was packing my guitars, that I met Lt. Col. Fred Cale of the U.S. Marines Corps. He’d had multiple tours in Iraq and was, surprisingly, a guitar aficionado. Lt. Col. Cale opened my eyes to a world in which I had no experience, and he showed me that a liberal songwriter from Austin, Texas, had more in common with a military officer than I’d imagined.
We talked about high-end guitars, songwriting and the way music helps people open up. And he gave me the idea that songwriting might be able to help soldiers tell their untellable stories, and ease their transition back to civilian life after combat tours.
Back in Austin, I soon found myself spending time with members of the Texas Army National Guard, where I met Maj. Jim Nugent. He was the one who truly gave me insight into the concept of “duty,” and he was instrumental in nurturing the subsequent idea for “Angel Flight.” The song about bringing home soldiers killed in the line of duty, which I wrote with my longtime friend Radney Foster, changed my life after it was released in 2009.
Until my conversation with Lt. Col. Cale in Germany, I’d never had any association with the U.S. military. No family or friends had served, and I really felt the “us-and-them” cultural remove that I think many civilians feel. But after the experience writing “Angel Flight” – and hearing dozens of stories from people who had been moved by the song – I knew I wanted to find some way to start giving back to the people who serve our country.
When CW Conner of LifeQuest Transitions called me in 2010 after watching Radney’s video for “Angel Flight,” the time was right. His nonprofit organization, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, helps wounded soldiers transition from combat zones to civilian life. We organized an initial three-day songwriting weekend with a handful of veterans, and the tremendous power of writing songs with these amazing men and women swept me away.
The soldiers – men and women from all four branches of the U.S. military – had stories to tell, and often no outlet to express them. Their experiences in war zones were so far beyond what civilians could imagine that they sometimes couldn’t communicate what they were feeling – what it’s like to have been ambushed in Ramadi, to go on patrol in Baghdad, to witness, and survive, so much destruction. With a guitar in hand and open minds and ears, we put words and music to some of what they’d been through.
The experience – for the soldiers, for their families, for me – was phenomenal. But the psychological drain was staggering. To truly be able to write, a songwriter has to be open to the emotion of the moment – and those days were filled with trauma, grief and turbulence. I knew I needed help in navigating these emotional stories, and for the next songwriting retreat six months later, I brought on board Radney and Jay Clementi, another fellow songwriter. In July 2011 the three of us spent a three-day weekend in Colorado with 10 soldiers and their families, immersed in building bonds, listening and setting their experiences to music.
The result was beyond anything I could have expected. You could actually see the transformation in some soldiers. Expressions lightened, laughter flowed, tears burst forth more than once. And the songs themselves were good in their own right. Six of them, in fact, were subsequently recorded in Nashville, and released on iTunes as “Faces of Freedom” – with the soldiers all as co-writers.
Knowing that you’re directly helping somebody by the simple act of writing a song has been a powerful motivator to continue the songwriting collaborations. From this experience I’ve gone on to create SongwritingWith:Soldiers, which brings together soldiers and songwriters in a retreat setting for three days of collaborative work, storytelling and emotional healing.
More about the sessions with U.S. veterans:
How is writing with a soldier different from collaborating with another songwriter?
The soldiers aren’t “songwriters.” So it’s up to me to come up with the structure and melody and make it all work as a song. And it’s up to me to listen. The joy of it is that it shows me again and again that everyday stories, and everyday language, are the raw material of songs. All I have to do is take their stories, use their words, and write it all down.
How do you approach it?
First, we just talk. I’m looking for an opening, some way to get inside the soldier’s head, inside his experience. It’s like a house. I want in, and sometimes the door is open, sometimes I have to crawl through the window. Eventually they say something, a word or maybe a phrase, and that becomes the starting place. Maybe it’s the hook, maybe a first line. And then we just go, building it verse and chorus until the thought feels complete.
When it’s finished, we immediately record the song on my laptop. Probably my favorite part of the whole experience is to sit back with the soldiers and listen to our songs. The look on their face is worth everything: the smiles, tears, respect – it’s all there.
How do you build intimacy with somebody you’ve just met, especially for something that is so emotionally heavy?
The important thing is to ask questions and listen. People want to talk, especially if there is somebody there who wants to listen. When we’re starting to write a song, I try to be as calm as possible, both internally and externally. I think others can feel when you’re calm, and when they can trust you.
Also, I make sure they know upfront that anything they say remains confidential if they want it to. That’s more important than anything else.
What do you find most challenging?
It’s two-fold: First, to remain present with the person while we’re writing, and to keep the focus on them. I try really hard to stay internally still when they begin to describe their experiences and emotions.
Then, when it’s all over, to find a way to deal with the stories I’ve heard. I tend to absorb everything around me when I’m writing a song. And these veterans tell us some pretty vivid stories about combat and its aftermath – and those images can stay with you a long time. So the challenge is to allow them a place in my consciousness without being emotionally overwhelmed.
Do you have any particular goals when you sit down with someone?
I want to be a conduit, to find a way to craft a song that reflects their story. I have to be still enough first to hear them, and then to process and formulate their thoughts into the words and melody of a song.
Are there times when things don’t work out?
Sometimes the results may not be what we’d thought they would be when we started. But that doesn’t mean things didn’t work. I’ve had times when I’ve been too personally drained from other stories I’d heard to really bring myself to a writing session. I have nothing to contribute, except to listen. Sometimes that is the greatest result. We can always get back together to write the song. Even writing with other songwriters there are days when nothing seems to be happening. The trick is to abandon all expectations, and then whatever happens is a success.
When I first started this project I talked with a veteran named Mike. He’d seen the worst of what three tours in Iraq could offer. He told me about the killing, the bombs, seeing people die right in front of him. Then he told me that now he sees no reason, ever, for violence. Period. His best friends were his Iraqi translators, all of whom he managed to bring to Colorado and help set up grocery stores. He was a man of war who’d become a man of peace.
It was my last session of the day. After he finished talking, I was in tears, humbled, emotionally leveled. I had nothing to say, no strength left whatsoever to respond. No songs. No poetry. Nothing. And I told him so. He simply stood up, shook my hand and thanked me for listening – and for doing what I do.
That was humbling. And it also made me realize the power of songwriting, and that there is an amazing use for this work.