Back

Songwriting With Soldiers Concert Brings Powerful Military Stories Into the Spotlight

The concert airs on October 25 on PBS.

Written by Cillea Houghton
Songwriting With Soldiers Concert Brings Powerful Military Stories Into the Spotlight
Songwriting with Soldiers; Photo credit: John Partipilo

True healing can be found through the power of music, a fact that was on full display during the 2019 Songwriting With Soldiers concert.

Co-founded by Darden Smith and Mary Judd, Songwriting With Soldiers (SW:S) pairs professional songwriters with active military members, allowing them to express their powerful stories of combat through the art of songwriting. The impact of these soldiers’ journeys was felt throughout the Songwriting With Soldiers concert at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, featuring performances by songwriter-artists and passionate SW:S supporters Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Radney Foster and more, who’ve collectively written songs for the likes of Neil Diamond, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Keith Urban.

Songwriting with Soldiers; Photo credit: John Partipilo
Songwriting with Soldiers; Photo credit: John Partipilo

The idea for the program came to Smith during a trip to Germany when he performed for members of the military. Admitting he was lacking in experience interacting with veterans at the time, Smith describes the performance as “awkward” – until a conversation with marine Fred Cale changed his life. “Underneath every uniform is a human being,” Cale told him, his sobering words motivating Smith to create a program that brings soldiers and professional songwriters together. Since launching in 2012, SW:S has hosted more than 30 retreats around the country, soldiers meeting as strangers and leaving as a community. “‘This retreat restored my faith in humanity. People really do care,’” Judd told the crowd at War Memorial, reciting the humble praise of a veteran after their first writing retreat.

The result of these pairings took center stage during the two-hour show that found folk singer Gauthier responsible for three of the night’s most moving numbers. Gauthier proved the influence of SW:S by performing selections off her 2018 album, Rifles & Rosary Beads. Every song on the 11-track project was written with veterans and their families, earning her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Folk Album in 2019. After Smith cited her as a “powerful voice” for the program, Gauthier invited her co-writer, U.S. Navy veteran Jamie Trent, to join her for a performance of “Bullet Holes in the Sky.” Gauthier revealed that while she had the idea for the chorus, she was initially unclear of the rest of the story. That’s when Trent stepped in with the simple, but impactful opening line: “It’s the 11th of November / Down in Nashville, Tenn. / Free breakfast at the Waffle House / If I show ‘em my ID.” The song puts the listener directly inside Trent’s honest perspective on Veteran’s Day, his voice and presence making the weight of the struggle veterans face all the more real through lyrics, “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 make their way down Main Street the crowd begins to cheer / I feel my chest explode as my eyes fill up tears.”

Gauthier continued to honor the soldier’s journey with a performance of “Still on the Ride” with fellow veteran and the song’s co-writer, retired U.S. Army Sergeant Joshua Geartz. Gauthier explained that when she met Geartz, he was in a wheelchair and required a service dog. He’s since recovered and recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, an accomplishment that drew encouraging applause from the audience. As Geartz played harmonica, Gauthier’s voice shone on the thought-provoking lyrics that touch on the physical pain of combat and pondering what happens to the souls of soldiers who have passed on. “I shouldn’t be here / You shouldn’t be gone / But it’s not up to me who dies and who carries on / I sit in my room, I close my eyes / Me and my guardian angel we’re still on the ride,” they sang poetically. She closed out her set with a duet with Chapman on “The War After the War,” a song “for the wives,” Gauthier described. The pair wrote the track with six army wives after prompting them with the question of how it feels to be married to a veteran. “What we heard them say was ‘there’s a war after the war,’” Gauthier revealed, which turned into the song that conveys the point of view of someone feeling lost in the shadow of her husband’s honor and pain.

Songwriting with Soldiers; Photo credit: John Partipilo
Songwriting with Soldiers; Photo credit: John Partipilo

Chapman also established a strong presence earlier in the evening with “Somebody Else’s War,” co-written with veteran Nikki Shaw. Chapman explained that during the writing session, Shaw opened upabout how she always felt like a soldier even during childhood, playing with G.I. Joe rather than Barbie dolls. But the anchor of the song is how Shaw’s younger sister has continuously found a way to follow in her footsteps. “‘When my little sister decided that she was going to enlist as well, it became my war. Before that, it was somebody else’s war and I was doing my job,’” Chapman shared of Shaw’s insight. Poised at the piano, Chapman’s voice was as haunting as the background singers who’s soaring vocals echoed the song’s meaningful message through the hallowed hall. Ending on a comforting note, Chapman and Shaw confirmed that her sister did make a safe return home. “I’m alright / You’re alright / The war goes on / But we’re alright,” she sang poignantly.

Other highlights of the show include Smith and James Monk’s collaboration on “Holdin’ God’s Hand” that tells of Monk’s terrifying first night as a combat videographer, along with Foster and songwriter Jay Clementi uniting on “No Me Preguntes (Don’t Ask Me).” Sung entirely in Spanish, the eloquent number chronicles the loss Foster’s co-writer endured due to war.   

“That’s the power that comes from people coming together and bringing their skills to serve other people, and that changes lives,” Smith said gratefully. “The songs you heard tonight are stories of soldiers and their families today, stories of their community, but it’s our community, it’s our culture. These songs unite all of us struggling to find peace inside the human condition. It’s not us and them,” he said with integrity. “It’s us.”

The Songwriting With Soldiers concert special will air on Friday (Oct. 25) at 10pm ET on PBS.