Founded by Darden Smith some five years ago, SongwritingWith: Soldiers is a charitable organisation that brings together musicians and often wounded (physically, spiritually and mentally) veterans, those still in active service and their families in a short retreat to write songs of an Americana persuasion together in an attempt to come to terms with and, hopefully, ease and heal their pain. Results have often been life-changing, even life-saving, and Amy Speace, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Radney Foster have all been involved while songs that have emerged from the process have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
To that list you can now add Mary Gauthier, no stranger to either psychological and emotional troubles or finding salvation through confessional songwriting, these 11 numbers here are the result of a series of soul-baring sessions, all co-written with soldiers and the first she’s recorded not directly connected to her own life and experiences.
It begins with the deliberately ambiguously titled ‘Soldiering On’, written in collaboration with Jennifer Marino, a Marine veteran, and addresses the difficulty in fitting back into life at home after the experiences of combat where the attitudes and behaviours that kept you alive can be destructive in a civilian or domestic setting as, set to a simple acoustic strum that morphs to include electric guitar, strings and resonant drums as it builds to a climax, she sings “what saves you in the battle can kill you at home.”
Marino also co-penned ‘Morphine 1-2’, a simple country jog built on steady one-two drum beat from Neilson Hubbard and accompanied by Danny Mitchell’s piano and horns that, laden with poignancy, unfolds the story of the titular medical helicopter’s female pilot who, along with the six members of her crew, died during a “desert blood drop” mission on her last scheduled flight before returning home
The fraught nature of post-combat life is understandably a recurring theme, potently surfacing again on ‘The War After The War’, which, set to slow march rhythm shaded by Michele Gazich’s violin, was co-written with Chapman (who, along with Odessa Settles, provides the album’s background vocals) and the assorted wives of service members and concerns the pressures and pains of living with a wounded veteran, their husbands honoured while they and the problems they face in being strong are consigned to the shadows, invisible. “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?” she asks as they daily have to deal with “landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor”.
The same concern is seen from the soldier’s perspective on the slow waltzing ‘It’s Her Love’, co-written with another Marine, James Dooley, a haunting finger-picked number, gradually embellished by piano and violin, about how his wife’s love keeps him together even “when I am broken and push her away” and “the dead and the dying are all I can see”.
PTSD and the inability to shake the memories of what was seen and done is a prime cause for the estimated 7,400 suicides of current and former members of the armed services in America every year, and it’s the foundation of the sparse slow waltz acoustic title track which, written with Joe Costello and underscored by mournful harmonica, violin and piano, tells of the memories of “bombed out schools and homes” return to haunt and not recognising the man you see in the mirror, “a stranger with blood on his hands”, turning to Vicodin, morphine and prayer in an attempt to escape the living nightmares.
The album also looks at the bonds forged on the battlefield in two songs written with young army veterans Megan Counighan and Britney Pfad. Built on a tribal drum beat ‘Got Your Six’ is about watching your fellow soldier’s back, at home as much as under fire, while the more uptempo ‘Brothers’ is about both a naïve new recruit, a young mother, trying to “prove that I’m a brother too” and, in the final verse, the way the women who served are forgotten when the flags are raised in salute.
It’s a gender-related theme that also extends to ‘Iraq’, a slow sway written by former army mechanic Brandy Davidson about the sexual harrassment and patronising attitudes she encountered (“a salute and a wink, a little pat on the back”) as, accompanying herself on harmonica, Gauthier sings “it was so hard to see ‘til it attacked but my enemy wasn’t Iraq”.
The three remaining numbers are all about the aftermath, the loss and the ambivalence. Again featuring harmonica, co-written with Josh Geartz, ‘Still On The Ride’ is from the perspective of a wounded veteran (“got holes in my eardrums, bruised and clots, double vision..I wake up feeling like I’m 90 years old”) that touches on survivor guilt (“I shouldn’t be here you shouldn’t be gone”) but also how the spirit of his dead comrade is the guardian angel that keeps him going.
It’s pointedly followed by the stunning ‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’, a haunting piano-backed ballad written with Desert Storm Navy veteran Jamie Trent and set against a Nashville Veterans Day backdrop and the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow it evokes (“They thank me for my service and wave their little flags. They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back”), pivoting around the striking chorus imagery of “I believe in God and country and in the angels up on high and in heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky”.
It ends with a return to the women left behind as loved ones go to war or return psychologically scarred with ‘Stronger Together’, on a gentle drum rhythm-led collaboration with a group of army wives married to Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldiers about their solidarity in dealing with the prospect of loss (“EOD wives don’t sit by the phone. No news is good news back at home”) and caring for their broken husbands (“we’re there when they fall apart”) as, with soulful harmonies from Civil Rights music gospel Settle (the daughter of former Fairfield Four member Walter), Gauthier yearningly hymns the chorus refrain of “sisters forever”.
In the condemnation of war, it’s often easy to blur the line between the fighters and the fight, the former often as much a casualty as any. While directed at Americans, and with a timely resonance in the light of the NFL national anthem protests, the album’s humanistic themes and sentiments embrace the experiences of the military and their families on a global scale, up there with Gauthier’s finest work and not just one of the best album’s you’ll hear in 2018, but one of the most important.
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Artist’s website: www.marygauthier.com
‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’ – official video: