In 2015, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier was sipping coffee inside the Carey Center for Global Good in upstate New York, watching one of the participants arrive for a weekend retreat led by an organization called SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
“He was struggling to roll himself up a hill in an old-fashioned wheelchair, with his service dog on a leash by his side, his wife behind them looking worried and unsure of what to do,” Gauthier recalls. “He clearly did not want help with the chair, and as he fought it up the hill, he stole my heart. He seemed so burdened, so sad, and so headstrong. I knew he was in a lot of emotional pain. I wanted to sit with him and help him articulate it in a song, so the song could alchemize some of his suffering.”
Soon Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) got her wish and was in a writing session with the Army veteran she’d seen, Josh Geartz, who was more than struggling—he’d been secretly planning his second suicide attempt. As they talked, Geartz shared that while he’d somehow survived a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003, his best friend had died in a vehicle crash, and the difference in their fates haunted him. Listening to Geartz’s story and jotting down notes, Gauthier started singing his words back over a simple 6/8 strum on her old Gibson J-45.
“So looking back now, who the hell knows / Where the soul of a dead soldier goes,” begins “Still On the Ride,” the song Geartz and Gauthier wrote together that day. “Guardian angels, maybe they’re true / My guardian angel, maybe it’s you.”
“Still On the Ride” is one of many emotionally powerful tracks on Gauthier’s new album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, comprised of songs she co-wrote through SongwritingWith:Soldiers. This project marks a new chapter for Gauthier, a masterful storyteller in song who’s been one of the most respected voices of the folk/Americana scene since the late ’90s—carrying on in the tradition of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle. In 2014 she began working with the SongwritingWith:Soldiers program, founded by Texas troubadour Darden Smith, which pairs professional songwriters with veterans and their spouses to put their stories into song and help them work through trauma.
“I’ve used songwriting in a variety of ways to save my own ass,” says Gauthier, who battled drug and alcohol addiction before devoting herself to music in her mid-30s. “Now, through the work with the veterans, I’m finding it’s a useful skill in service to others who are struggling.”
In the Writing Room
When Gauthier originally got involved with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, at the suggestion of fellow Nashville songsmith Darrell Scott, she had serious doubts about being a good fit for the program. Gauthier describes herself as a slow and meticulous writer, while at the weekend retreats all the songs have to be completed quickly. Plus, as a lesbian with no affiliation to the military, she worried that the veterans would not relate to her.
“The stereotypes that I had about who served in the military were so far from reality,” she admits. “I pictured a group of right-wing homophobes, and I didn’t know if I was the person for the job. Fortunately, I was wrong in every way.”
Josh Geartz had no idea what to expect at his first SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat—he hadn’t heard of any of the songwriters and had never tried writing a song. But something clicked at the writing session with Gauthier.
“As I got comfortable with her and how open and honest she was, I started opening up more and more about things that I hadn’t told anybody,” he says. “And then just talking through it and not having her react in any way other than, ‘Wow,’ and ‘I’m glad you’re still here,’ and ‘You did what you did—don’t be so hard on yourself’ . . .” After several hours with Gauthier, he says, “Everything that I had built up so grand in my head, of how people would react or how they’d look at me—I could see it wasn’t this big scary thing that I’d thought it was.”
Beyond the therapeutic value of the writing process, the song Geartz wrote with Gauthier quickly took on a life of its own. A month after the retreat, she invited him to play harmonica with her on “Still On the Ride” at the Grand Ole Opry, and he began to meet all sorts of strangers who connected with his story/song. “Just going out there and saying, ‘This is what happened to me and what I’ve done, this is how I dealt with it,’ is helping other people,” says Geartz. “That gave me the motivation and allowed me to open up and put myself out there.”
For Gauthier, one of the keys to this collaborative process is keeping the music very basic. “It’s the old Harlan Howard ‘three chords and the truth’ mantra that works for me,” she says. “So I’m not approaching it with musically complex progressions. I’m looking for key words that help me articulate what the veteran in front of me is saying. And I think keeping it simple is really important, because these stories are so complex. To get a single story out of someone who’s been deployed six times, seven times, that’s not easy. They’ve got layers and layers and layers of complex trauma, as do their wives.”
In the writing sessions, Gauthier asks questions, careful to steer clear of judgment. “I’m not interested in the morality of what they did,” she says. “I’m interested in the story behind those eyes that are staring at me.” As she sings potential lyrics to the soldiers, she asks if they ring true. And when they do, she says, “It’s like a can opener. It pries them open. The story begins to pour into the song.”
The intensity of what pours out can be overwhelming at times. That was the case with another Army veteran, Joe Costello, who co-wrote the title track of Rifles and Rosary Beads with Gauthier. The title phrase itself came from a poem Costello had written about landing in Baghdad, in which he described how “the religious ones whispered / clutching their rifles and rosary beads.” Gauthier read the poem and suggested they work with “Rifles and Rosary Beads” as the title to their song, and asked Costello to talk more about what he saw and felt in Iraq.
“I had a bit of a flashback when I was in the songwriting process,” recalls Costello. “I could feel the sand on my skin again, I could feel the heat from the desert, and for anybody, that’s a very challenging situation to be in. But Mary had the capacity to hold space for me. I cherish that moment—it was really profound. I think it forged a family feeling with her and me that’s enduring.”
The song Costello and Gauthier wrote together is musically serene, sung quietly over bare-bones fingerpicking. But lyrically it packs a punch, building to this final verse:
The mirror frightens me
I walk past try not to see
The stranger with blood on his hands
Brother I’m not that man
As they wrote, Costello and Gauthier needed to pause several times to let the tears flow, but at the end of the process they felt triumphant—even doing a football touchdown dance. “We knew we had a really good song,” she says, “and what we had was bigger than us.”
As Gauthier performs the Rifles and Rosary Beads songs in concert, singing stories that are not her own, she finds that the audience relates to them in an intensely personal way. “This switch gets flipped and they’re no longer thinking about the singer, me, or the soldier, my co-writer; they’re thinking about their own story, their own family,” she says. “This is what empathy is. The heart opens and something really beautiful happens.”
This kind of emotional connection is especially needed in this era, she adds. “Without bearing into politics too far, I think we’re in an empathy crisis,” she says. “There’s a shortage of empathy, and that’s why we’re divided right now. I think songs can be the road map, or at least part of the road map, back to each other.”
Like many veterans who’ve participated in SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreats, both Geartz and Costello remain involved with the program as volunteers. Costello is hoping to set up a satellite office in his home of Kalamazoo, Michigan, working with physicians interested in trauma-informed care.
With veterans, Costello says, “People are usually thinking in binary terms: ‘Thank you for your service’ or ‘How could you do that?’ I think programs like this, sharing stories through song, help us have a more transparent narrative. And so anything I can do to help people understand, to build that bridge between the military and civilian world so vets return home to a receptive group, I’m on board for that.”
Geartz, meanwhile, has been on a mission to share the benefits of SongwritingWith:Soldiers. In 2017 he rode his wheelchair from Indiana to his home near Buffalo, New York—more than 400 miles—to support the program and draw attention to the fact that, on average, 20 veterans take their own lives every day. He raised enough funds to pay for last fall’s songwriting retreat in New York, helping a new group of veterans put their experiences into song.
“It sounds so simple,” says Geartz. “How can something so easy, just sitting with one other person talking for a couple hours, change lives? But in retreat after retreat after retreat you see it, and it works every time with every participant. As far as I know, as of today, zero participants in their programs have committed suicide. That alone should speak volumes about what they do.”
What Mary Gauthier Plays
1950 Gibson J-45—“beat up, bruised, scarred, and beautiful,” she says, and perfect for working with veterans.
“It’s almost a mirror of how they feel.”
Amplification: undersaddle pickup (she’s not sure what brand) through an L.R. Baggs Venue DI. Elixir NanoWeb medium strings. Shubb capo. Super thin .60 mm picks. Onboard Sabine tuner.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.