Nashville-based musician Mary Gauthier has been working for more than four years with wounded combat veterans through Songwriting With Soldiers, a program that offers a forum for members of the military to process their war experiences through music.
But the critically acclaimed singer and songwriter thinks most of the coverage of her role in the program gets things backward.
“I keep seeing the headline on articles that says something like ‘Mary Gauthier Helping Our Veterans,’” she said by phone from her Nashville home earlier this week. “It’s troubling — and it’s condescending.
“Whatever I’m doing as a songwriter to help them tell their stories, they’re giving it back to me double, triple, quadruple,” said Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY). “We’re helping each other in a really lonely world. We are going into relationships that are real, and that’s the most you can ask for in anything.”
The latest manifestation of that work is “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” an album of 11 songs she wrote with veterans — both men and women. She also collaborated with soldiers’ spouses and partners. All told, it’s a powerful work with a perspective that’s rarely tapped so directly. The Times is premiering the full album, which will be released on Jan. 26.
“A lot of songwriters have written about soldiers and war,” Gauthier, 55, said, “but very few have written with them.”
A byproduct of the program is that she became fluent in jargon such as “EOD” — explosive ordnance disposal, a.k.a. the bomb squad, and “I’ve got your 6,” meaning, “I’ve got your back.”
The album opens with “Soldiering On,” one of two songs she crafted with Marines veteran Jennifer Marino, who is among four female military alums represented on the album, along with four male vets and half a dozen spouses of service members.
It sets the tone for everything that follows: “I was bound to something bigger / More important than a single human life / I wore my uniform with honor / My service was not sacrifice / But what saves you in the battle / Can kill you at home / A soldier, soldiering on.”
“Brothers” elucidates the battlefield experience of female soldiers, who often struggle for acceptance and respect: “I tried to be like you, what must I do? / To prove that I’m a brother too,” she sings in a song she wrote with Army buddies Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad along with songwriter Georgia Middleman.
The myriad feelings unleashed by Veterans Day remembrances are at the heart of “Bullet Holes in the Sky,” which Gauthier wrote with Navy veteran Jamie Trent, who has been volunteering with “Songwriting With Soldiers” since 2013.
“They thank me for my service and wave those little flags / They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back,” she sings.
Searching through his experiences in the Navy during the workshop with Gauthier “is the most powerful thing I’ve ever been part of in my entire life,” Trent, 43, said in a separate interview.
After spending nine months aboard the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that served in the Persian Gulf in the mid-1990s, Trent said exposure to lead and asbestos while working in the shipyards back home led to early heart disease and multiple heart attacks by the time he was 32.
“I was feeling pretty sorry for myself at that point,” he said. “Then about the time this [songwriting] retreat took place, one of my best friends committed suicide, and when I was there at the retreat, that’s sort of where we gravitated. It’s the first time I had cried since my friend took his own life. I think crying is the precursor to finally getting over something.
“My quality of life ever since that experience changed twofold: It changed my outlook on the world, my outlook on my marriage, my outlook in my job,” Trent continued.
For all that, Gauthier said her first response after being invited to participate in Songwriting With Soldiers, a nonprofit founded by singer-songwriter Darden Smith in 2012, was unmitigated fear.
“Before I actually participated, when it was just in idea form, I found it scary,” she said. “I thought, I don’t know anything about the military. I haven’t served. I have no background or reference for it. I felt like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know how to talk to these people. Will they even want to talk to me?’ I don’t feel or look like them, I don’t have anything they can relate to.
“I had so many dumb-ass stereotypes flying through my mind of who I thought they were, and I had all these fears that were stereotype-based,” she said.
She’s written close to 45 songs through the multiple workshops she’s participated in over the last 4 ½ years, and has increasingly been highlighting them in her concerts. She returns to Southern California for two shows on March 23 at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.
“I started out throwing in one, and then two. Now about half the show consists of the soldiers’ co-writes,” she said. “The audiences sit on the edge of their seats. They have not heard anything like this before. These stories — the audience knows this is real.”
None of the songs on “Rifles and Rosary Beads” is a one-dimensional flag waver, neither are any of them critiques or rallying cries for any particular political perspective.
“The project is not about politics,” Gauthier said. “The project is getting to the heart of the story. Each individual has a story, and my job as a songwriter is to listen, really listen, to each of those stories. … Our job as songwriters is not to assess them, or diagnose them, or somehow come up with a judgment about their mental health in any way. It’s to listen.
“And here’s the thing: When you share with someone, when you look them in the eye and really listen, you sit in non-judgment,” she said. “When you’re in that situation, what happens is human connection. What happens is empathy.”
There’s also the considerable power of music to reach those who otherwise seem unreachable.
“The songs have their magic,” Gauthier said. “We have the term I think we borrowed from the military: ‘post-traumatic growth’ — an antidote to PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We’ve seen people go from a workshop into the world different than they were prior to the workshop.