Rifles & Rosary Beads may be one of the most important album releases of the year.
Simply put, anyone who claims to care about those serving in America’s armed forces should listen to these deeply personal stories which transcend petty political positioning. Yes, the personal is most definitely political in these songs co-written by Mary Gauthier and an assortment of wounded veterans and their family members, and their stories should make anyone think beyond the simplistic positioning of our contemporary debates.
SongwritingWith:Soldiers is an organization founded by songwriter Darden Smith that holds retreats pairing wounded veterans with established songwriters to help them to find a voice to express their experiences and through their sharing work towards emotional and spiritual healing. Songwriters who have participated in the program include Beth Nielsen Chapman, Marshall Crenshaw, Radney Foster, and Amy Speace, and some of the songs produced have been recorded by major country artists including Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Luke Bryan, and Garth Brooks.
Mary Gauthier is a natural to serve as a contributor to this cause, her powerful autobiographical songwriting on past records addressing such topics as addiction, abandonment, and the search for meaning amidst pain. Turning her empathetic ear to the plights of others, she guides a group of veterans and their families through the composition of 11 highly effective and affecting songs. Of the experience, Gauthier writes “None of the veterans are artists. They don’t write songs; they don’t know that songs can be used to move trauma. Their understanding of song doesn’t include that. For me, it’s been the whole damn deal. Songwriting saved me. It’s what I think the best songs do, help articulate the ineffable, make the invisible visible, creating resonance, so that people (including the songwriter) don’t feel alone.”
Album opener “Soldiering On” (co-written with marine veteran Jennifer Marino) introduces a challenge that colors the whole of the record: rebuilding a normal life and sense of reality after the hyper-realities and abnormalities of war. “I wore my uniform with honor / My service was not a sacrifice,” Gauthier sings, “But what saves you in the battle / Can kill you at home.” The challenge is amplified in “The War After the War” (on which Gauthier shares co-writer credits with Beth Neilsen Chapman and a collection of veterans’ spouses) which gives voice to the caretakers of wounded veterans: “I serve unseen,” the singer sings, giving voice to the ones so often overlooked amidst all of the sincere but sometimes misguided “Thank you for your service” well wishes, “I get no basic training / I get no purple heart.”
“Bullet Holes in the Sky” (co-written with navy veteran Jamie Trent) addresses the public burden carried by veterans who often struggle with the communal need to memorialize and honor what is, for the veteran, a sometimes contradictory and conflicting experience: “They thank me for my service and wave those little flags / They genuflect on Sundays, and I know they’d send us back”, Gauthier sings. It’s a poignantly poetic observation that ends each chorus, the kind of metaphor that can only be created by someone who has experienced a world turned upside down when she sings of “heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky. “Meanwhile, the simple, poignant “It’s Her Love” (co-written with marine veteran James Dooley) pays homage to the importance of returning home to a support system that can heal amidst the otherworldly visions and dark memories.
Some of the strongest voices offered up in these songs come from women warriors. “Brothers” (co-written with army veterans Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad) offers the poignant experiences of women soldiers at the front, facing their challenges as equals while not necessarily being given equal credit. Addressing a veteran’s day service honoring “the men at arms” the singer, who has learned to cry without tears in order to fit in, asks “I was just like you when the bullets flew / I had your back, you had mine too / Brothers in arms your sisters covered you / Don’t that make us your brothers too?”And in the poignant, harrowing “Iraq” (co-written with army veteran Brandy Davidson) the songwriters confront the sexual harassment and assault that female soldiers are too often subjected to amidst the stresses of war and a longstanding masculine hierarchy.
From start to finish, Rifles & Rosary Beads is a beautiful and harrowing experience telling important stories that need to be heard and pointing to still more others coming from the ongoing work being done through SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
These songs and stories are all the more important for this country’s current state of disjunction and ideological separation. At a time when people have been burning football jerseys in reaction to the peaceful protests of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players, claiming that our veterans were being disrespected, this opportunity to listen to the voices of those veterans should be embraced. It may be true that they are saying things that are hard to hear, things that go outside of the simple narratives of good versus evil that we utilize to soothe and protect ourselves, but that makes it all the more important.
Shut off the social media for an hour, and pay attention to these stories. The co-writers of these poignant and powerful songs have fought in defense of our collective freedom of speech. We should honor them by listening to their stories.