Friday’s announcement of the latest round of Grammy Award nominations remind us once again that some popular music is smartly written, some of it is potently performed, meticulously arranged and produced and expertly recorded.
Now and then, however, there’s music that’s just plain important.
That’s the operative word for Mary Gauthier’s extraordinary “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” newly nominated in the folk album category. It’s a collection of songs the esteemed Louisiana-reared singer and songwriter wrote in collaboration with U.S. military combat veterans — male and female — and with family members whose lives are also fundamentally impacted by their service.
While many musicians have written songs with their perspectives on what they imagine the military experience to be, “Rifles & Rosary Beads” is that rarity that brings this experience to light explosively in songs drawn from the participants’ own lives and words, which Gauthier underscored Saturday at McCabe’s in Santa Monica in a 90-minute set, the heart of which was the album’s songs.
Take “Soldiering On,” one of the 11 songs on the album that emerged over the last five years out of her participation in the Songwriting With Soldiers program, during which military veterans team up with seasoned songwriters to channel their often deeply traumatic experiences creatively in ways that become therapeutic for all concerned.
Gauthier wrote “Soldiering On” with former Marine Corps combat pilot Jennifer Marino, whom she described as “a badass.” Marino wanted to delve into the subject of veteran suicide, which claims 20 vets’ lives a day, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than double the suicide rate in the civilian population.
I wore my uniform with honor
My service was not a sacrifice
But what saves you in the battle
Can kill you at home
A soldier, soldiering on
“We’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than we’ve lost in combat,” Gauthier said. “One thing Jennifer said to me is that ‘We’re highly trained in how to survive in combat, but we’re not trained in how to stop when we come home.”
It’s hard to find a line in a song from 2018 more haunting than this one she and Navy vet Jamie Trent came up with in “Bullet Holes in the Sky”: “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.”
“Music can be entertaining and I love good entertainment,” said Gauthier, who was accompanied Saturday by backup singer-guitarist Jaimee Harris and pianist-violin-violist Michele Gazich. “But songs can also do something more. I used songs to save my own ass, and in this program I’ve taken the skills I learned over 20 years and applied them to helping people deal with trauma, express their feelings.
“War is horrific,” she said, “and the wounds of war are multi-generational. It affects everyone…. When one family member serves, everybody serves.”
That often unrecognized facet of war comes out in the song “The War After the War,” which taps the feelings of the military spouses Gauthier wrote with: “Who’s going to care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?/There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor.”
Such songs reach to the deepest, darkest corners of human experience, and Gauthier, one of the most acclaimed songwriters of the new millennium, guided her collaborators to transform their stories into works of art that neither trivialize nor romanticize that experience.
As Gauthier noted, there’s always room for another good love song — as she proved before the “Rifle & Rosary Beads” segment when she sang “Thank God for You,” a new song she wrote with L.A. indie rock veteran Peter Case. And there will always be a market for diverting pop entertainment.
But Gauthier and her collaborators have resoundingly demonstrated the higher purpose that music — and art in general — can serve when it’s in the right hands: the discovery of what it can mean to be human.
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