SongwritingWith:Soldiers Helps Write the War After the War
Darden Smith, Mary Gauthier, and other songwriters combat PTSD one song at a time
Darden Smith is taking his time.
Sitting on the porch of the Evins Mill resort just outside of Smithville, Tenn., the Austin songwriter leans back in his chair and kicks out his long legs.
"How long were you in the service?" he asks.
"Thirteen years," says Jeff Hutcherson, sitting across from him.
"What did you like most about it?" asks Smith.
Smith lets the sentiment hang a moment and nods, arms crossed. The two men are nearly the same age, though the Navy veteran looks years older than his interlocutor, 57. Hutcherson is a stocky bear of a man and moves slowly, shuffling with a visible pain he never mentions and his jaw locked tight behind a white beard.
"He doesn't talk about his time in the service much," Hutcherson's wife confides at dinner the night before, a mix of curiosity and trepidation in her voice about what the weekend holds.
The eight veterans gathered to participate in SongwritingWith:Soldiers' first Tennessee retreat in September all originated from different backgrounds: a range of generations, genders, races, and branches of the military. All have experienced combat, from Vietnam through contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some wear it more heavily than others. None of them are quite sure what to expect from the three-day retreat.
Mary Judd, who co-founded the nonprofit with Smith in 2012, begins the dinner by outlining what SongwritingWith:Soldiers is not.
"We are not a military organization, we are not a religious organization, we are not a political organization. We are not a music therapy program," she emphasizes. "We are a group of creative professionals here to have a weekend of sharing our stories, writing songs, and build more awareness of our creativity and different ways to use it."
Her introduction is intentionally disarming. There's no pretense of therapy, no expectation of healing or confronting trauma. Humility drives the program by design, which underlies its effectiveness.
Tonight, Smith gathers the other three singer-songwriters in a conference room. None of the vets are expected to know the artists' names, though they'd almost certainly recognize their work. James House performs "Ain't That Lonely Yet" and Beth Nielsen Chapman offers "This Kiss" to Mary Gauthier's "I Drink." The second turn through the song swap strikes more personal, with Gauthier's "Mercy Now," House's "Broken Wing," and Chapman relating the devastating loss behind "Sand and Water."
In the room, the potential for connection blooms with the material's emotional thrust – just the act of acknowledging pain and doubt. Smith closes the meet by preparing Hutcherson and the others for their songwriting sessions the next day.
"You don't have to be profound, but you will be. You don't have to be poetic, but you will be," he assures them. "What we're doing together is not magic, but magic happens."
Back on the porch with Hutcherson the next morning, Smith continues to patiently pose questions. Stories of the former's small-town Southern upbringing, his combat experiences, and coming back home begin to slowly unwind, threads of many potential songs floating through the conversation. Smith works with calm of a fisherman, questions cast out and stories allowed to run and then reeled back in, listening and knowing that the best catch lies in the deepest water. Forty-five minutes in, he finally picks up his guitar.
The entire process is intense and exhausting. Hutcherson relates experiences long clenched inside. He embraces the vulnerability of the moment as Smith reads lines that he's said back to him, and a song begins to take shape. After three hours, Hutcherson's smiling and nodding his head as Smith sings back his story.
"This is what songs are for," says Smith later back in Austin. "They're about telling stories and moving people's lives. It's real, it's honest.
"All my life, my professional life, I was just trying to get people to applaud for me," he continues. "In SongwritingWith:Soldiers, when you hit a home run, the room is silent. There's no applause. It's just two people, sitting in a room staring at each other, and maybe crying."
Restless artist, that's Smith. The four-time Austin Music Award winner for Best Folk (1987-90) flirted with major label success in the early Nineties before Columbia dropped him and he nearly left music. He dabbled in scoring dance pieces and a commission for the Austin Symphony before channeling his energy toward fostering creativity with his "Be an Artist" program (see "20 Questions With Darden Smith," April 19, 2002).
"I'd already had this music career, and it was great, but I was bored," he admits. "It wasn't that it wasn't fun, just that I'd done it already and I was wondering if there was something else I could do with songs."
Something else emerged when the Texas National Guard commissioned Smith to write a song for them. He spent weeks going to Camp Mabry and talking with soldiers, listening for the nugget of inspiration. One day, a soldier referenced an Angel Flight, the plane that returns home soldiers killed overseas.
Radney Foster helped Smith finish writing "Angel Flight" and recorded the song for his 2009 album, Revival. Its video went viral.
Smith subsequently received an invitation to Colorado Springs by a nonprofit helping soldiers transition from active duty to civilian life. He'd recently reconnected with Judd, a childhood friend from Austin now researching and developing programs on positive psychology in New York. She asked to observe his songwriting session in Colorado.
"When we got together with these veterans, it was just completely mind-blowing," recalls Judd. "All this work I was doing in positive psychology as a writer and educator, looking at resilience and well-being and helping people transform from trauma, I was seeing so much of what I was studying right in front of me.
"After we left, we knew there was something there," she attests. "He knew he could get more songwriters, and I knew I could design the program. It was so powerful that we just couldn't not do it."
Smith assembled a group of top songwriters, including Foster, Jay Clementi, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, Bonnie Bishop, and Gary Nicholson. He knew such heavy work required a unique creative skill set.
"Not all songwriters can do this," Smith acknowledges. "Some aren't willing, some can't be quiet and listen, and some just aren't that kind of writer, and that's not a flaw. I come from that world of sitting in a room and staring down a problem, but speed is essential in this. It's writing quickly and knowing how to keep yourself out of the song.
"That's the hardest thing to do unless you really understand the co-writing craft, and that's really a Nashville ethic."
SongwritingWith:Soldiers' first participants were largely vets assigned to the program, some more reluctant than others. Word and recommendations spread quickly among alumni and soon the group began hosting retreats and workshops beyond Texas. An initial grant from the Bob Woodruff Foundation helped expand both their scope and reach. The nonprofit now stages nearly a dozen retreats a year as well as numerous sessions with partner missions across the country – all at no cost to the participants.
The program has hosted over 500 veterans and family members, with most of their songs available on the SongwritingWith:Soldiers website. Participants all register with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) to receive proper co-writing credit on their songs.
Beyond the music, Smith and Judd recognize the bigger impact. The latter conducts studies with medical research groups to quantitatively gauge the impact of their work with veterans. She notes that a pilot study found an average 30% decrease per individual of PTSD symptoms, and 25% reduction in depressive symptoms through their work.
"The songwriting is really just a vehicle for this other stuff, the connections they make with each other and through that, realizing the connections they can make with the rest of the world," emphasizes Smith. "That and realizing their strengths, and how they can build on those strengths. The collaboration is everything. The making of things with other people is where change happens."
Rifles & Rosary Beads
Smith insists on one additional requirement for participating songwriters: an established career. He doesn't want applicants simply looking for professional gain or opportunity. SongwritingWith:Soldiers is necessarily a private experience between the artists and participants, a space of personal trust that must be earned and kept.
As such, Mary Gauthier's decision to record an album of her co-writes with veterans came about through careful consideration and permission. Last year's Rifles & Rosary Beads garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album, and she's become a leading advocate for the program.
"I started playing some of the songs to my general audience and saw the reaction, saw how civilians by the thousands had no idea what soldiers were going through," says Gauthier. "I went back and forth with Darden a lot about [the album]; I needed to know it was okay. Who am I, a lesbian leftist with a veterans album? This is not something I ever saw myself doing."
"It elevated the program, and it took a lot of weight off me to be the spokesman," offers Smith of the album's success. "Mary took it out into the world and people all over the world heard these songs. I couldn't do that."
Involved from its early years, Gauthier counts SongwritingWith:Soldiers as the most important and meaningful work she does. She understands that creative catharsis can be transformative, and deeply believes in the underlying necessity of the expression and songwriting's capacity for community.
"The point is to connect, and connection is where empathy happens and we see each other in a way that creates resonance," she says. "That deep resonance is what so many people that have been traumatized are missing. Trauma is removal. It's a separation that just aches. We're built to have to be together as humans."
Confronting those injuries with participants is often as difficult for songwriters as military veterans. Not only are the artists crafting a song under intense pressure, they're pulling on the stitching holding back experiences soldiers often have never shared. They're absorbing the extraordinary impact of that suffering while trying to shape it into something external and tangible, a story to help its owner take back control of their narrative.
"One of the things that's real important about this is that we do cry. We're not therapists. We're songwriters," offers Gauthier. "We hear some hard, horrible shit, and when you cry with them, it really connects you. They'll see that they tell us stuff and we're not running away. We're not scared, we're not judging them, and we're not going to. We just bear witness.
"I don't know if there's been a retreat where we haven't cried. Sometimes just to be human and hear these stories, you have to cry."
"Our gig is to disengage that trauma. It's not our job to carry the trauma," emphasizes Smith, who insists that his fellow songwriters have constructive rejuvenating channels of their own after each retreat. "I call it an emotional tar, and getting rid of the emotional tar is essential, because if you do too much of this and you don't get rid of the tar inside of you, it will just knock you out. It's emotionally exhausting and you pick up trauma, so you just have to prepare for that.
"Our job is to be there and accept this gift of burden from these people we serve, but it's not our job to carry it. It's our job to release it."
As all parties gather in the retreat's conference room Saturday night, anticipation hangs in the air. Everyone's exhausted from the day's work but exuding a camaraderie where before they had been hesitant and guarded. As the songwriters perform each soldier's song, a stillness swells through the room. Nods of recognition abound and no one tries to hold back the tears.
For Smith and his peers, it's easy to understand the appeal of the performance. Even with all the challenges and anxiety of the day's sessions, no show could compare to the sheer emotional intensity and connection in the room as they sing these still freshly wrought songs.
"There's something about allowing yourself to be seen in that incredibly vulnerable way that brings joy," muses Gauthier. "The joy comes from the connection, and seeing ourselves in each other. Sometimes it ain't pretty, but dammit, we're all just doing the best we can here."
"Creativity is the antithesis to what PTSD thinking is like," offers Dr. Kevin Reeder, a former Marine now working as a psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "PTSD-related thinking is don't take risks, don't put yourself out there, don't take chances, and stay safe in your bubble. That is the exact opposite of what creativity is, which is mess up the living room, make mistakes, try it again, and really just take a leap."
An early participant in SongwritingWith:Soldiers, Dr. Reeder now serves as a facilitator for the program. He understands the unique challenges of soldiers transitioning to civilian life, and the struggles they often face.
The latest VA studies estimate anywhere from 11-20% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year, and report an average of 20 suicide deaths per day among active and former service members, including National Guard and Reserve members.
Importantly, SWS doesn't focus just on diagnosed trauma, or even assume the participants are suffering from PTSD. Veterans and family members in the program represent a broad spectrum of experiences, with one of its primary goals being to realize creative strengths and unlock new ways of processing experiences. Judd and Smith have already expanded the program to other groups, like teens experiencing homelessness.
"The questions and the problems are different here," notes Reeder in comparison to his clinical work. "Just the fact that we focus not on what's wrong with you, but what the heck is right with you, is a different agenda.
"PTSD has only been a diagnosis since 1980, so I think it's stupid for us to presume we know what works," he continues. "There is a lot of great healing that is going on, and recovery can happen anywhere."
A one-hour Songwriting With Soldiers Concert special debuted on PBS last week and is available to watch online at KLRU.org. Darden Smith hosts the one-day “Singing Your Story/Writing the Truth” workshop at 6 String Ranch on Saturday, Nov. 9: www.6stringranch.com