Active members of the military, veterans, and their families and will be sharing the spotlight with some of the country’s top singer-songwriters this Thursday night at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, where they’ll gather with a live audience for a concert taping of Songwriting With Soldiers. The evening’s program will feature songs written by soldiers and military family members in collaboration with artists such as Darden Smith, Mary Gauthier, Will Kimbrough and others who will be performing as part of an all-star writers’ lineup. The show, which is independently produced by Todd Jarrell with support from PBS station WCTE and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, will air nationally as a one-hour concert special on PBS this fall.
“If you want a window into the lives of the people that we send overseas to go to war, this is the way to do it. It’s people of all races, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, faiths,” Jarrell says. “And it’s not just a window into what happens in war; it’s about what happens when they come home, what happens after, about what happens to their families,” he adds.
The program showcases the ongoing work of SongWritingWith:Soldiers (SW:S), a project that began with singer-songwriter Darden Smith. After returning from performances at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, Smith was inspired to use the art of songwriting in service to veterans. He partnered with communications and positive-psychology/educational-programming expert, Mary Judd, and in 2012 SW:S was born. The project pairs professional songwriters with active-duty soldiers, veterans, and their families at writing retreats around the country. There, soldiers can have open conversations with the writers and tell their stories, which often aren’t pretty. The writers capture the essence of each story, using direct words and phrases of their military co-writers to craft songs that tell hard truths about war and what happens after soldiers return home. The songs are “the most scary, and beautiful work I’ve ever done,” Smith says in a press release.
While U.S. veterans of any war can participate in the program, many of the younger SW:S participants have fought most recently in the Middle East. More than 2.7 million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 18 years; thousands have been killed and wounded in what has become America’s longest military engagement. When soldiers come home, some of them struggle with the aftermath of their experiences and face difficulties upon returning to everyday life with family and friends. SW:S was created to help those soldiers and their loved ones heal and grow through the songwriting process. “Through their songs, participants rediscover their creativity and reconnect with family, friends, and communities,” the SW:S website says.
More than 400 military members and family members have written songs with SW:S, and Thursday’s concert will feature selections from the SW:S catalog, many of which are available on CD or online through Bandcamp. One of the best known collections is Mary Gauthier’s 2018 release Rifles & Rosary Beads, which features 12 songs co-written with veterans and veterans’ families. Another song, “No Me Preguntes (Don’t Ask Me)” by Radney Foster and military collaborators Mario Candela, Erminio Orona and Jimmy Perez is featured on Bandcamp. At Thursday’s show performers will introduce each song by giving some background about the source of inspiration and recognition to their military collaborators, many of whom will be in attendance. The show will also include short video interviews with participants.
The live performance of Songwriting With Soldiers begins at 8 p.m. this Thursday, Aug. 1, at War Memorial Auditorium. The televised concert will premiere on PBS Oct. 25 as part of the network’s Fall Arts Festival. Click here to enter to win a pair of tickets to the show! For more information and tickets, visit Song Writing With Soldiers online. Complimentary tickets are available to area military personnel and family members.