Imagine you’re a woman serving in the United States Army. You’re pregnant when your unit goes into training for a combat tour, so you can’t join them until after you’ve given birth and missed out on some crucial camaraderie and trust building. When the call to Afghanistan comes, your baby is 7 months old and you’re lactating, but you have to bid the child adieu and depart for the desert, where you’ll serve as a truck driver. On long trips into remote areas, you can’t relieve yourself in a bottle like your male counterparts; plus, you don’t bathe for days on end; and when something traumatic happens – a mortar strike or an IED attack – you struggle to compartmentalize it.
This is all part of Afghanistan war veteran Meghan Counihan’s real-life story, one that Americana singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier is determined to share on her new album Rifles & Rosary Beads. Counihan wrote about her experiences in the songs “Brothers” and “Got Your Six,” two standouts of Gauthier’s latest LP.
The album, due out January 26th via Thirty Tigers, is the creative byproduct of Gauthier’s work over the past four-and-a-half years with an Austin-based nonprofit called SongwritingWith:Soldiers. Started by another singer-songwriter, Darden Smith, the group sponsors retreats – some of which are restricted to women – in which veterans like Counihan are paired with professional songwriters like Gauthier. The vets share anecdotes and stories, the songwriters mold them into lyrics and set them to music, and songs about the intricacies of military life are born.
These retreats have produced hundreds of songs over the years, but Gauthier’s album marks the first time that any of them have been assembled into a commercial product. The album was her idea, one which SWS supports and stands to benefit from, as a portion of all sales are earmarked for the organization’s coffers.
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“These are some of the best songs I’ve ever written,” says Gauthier, who’s careful to note that all 10 tracks are officially credited as co-writes to the veterans and fellow songwriters (Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland and Georgia Middleman, specifically) she worked with. “I think they should go out in the world and be heard.”
Neither SWS co-founder Smith nor Gauthier served in the military, although the latter songwriter’s personal upbringing was rife with conflict and carnage. Orphaned at childbirth in New Orleans, Gauthier ran away from her adoptive parent’s home in her teens and began a decades-long descent into substance abuse. When she finally got sober after getting a DUI in her thirties and moving on from a career in the restaurant industry, she had ample autobiographical fodder for sorrowful songs – perhaps the most famous of which is “I Drink,” a tune that’s been covered by Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and, most recently (and poignantly), Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare.
“Having gone through my own traumas and my own personal hells, I haven’t been to war, but let me tell you, man, addiction is damn close,” says Gauthier.
Moreover, her experience has left her particularly well-equipped to deal with the soldiers who make their way to SWS retreats.
“I haven’t been in the military, but I’ve known my share of pain,” she explains. “It allows me to sit with someone who’s struggling and not be afraid. Being in recovery for a lot of years now, I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve gotten sober and sat with a lot of folks who are suffering. Bearing witness is a really underrated thing; it’s a big damn deal.”
When she attended her first SWS retreat near Austin, Gauthier says she “had no idea” what sort of issues the youngest generation of veterans was dealing with.
“If somebody in a family is in service, the whole family is in service,” Gauthier adds. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know our veterans were being deployed seven, eight, nine, 10 times. It’s inhumane. We don’t even know we’re at war, we’ve been at war so long.”
This lack of collective cognizance has led to what Gauthier refers to as “the civilian-military divide,” which she believes is as wide as the “Grand Canyon at this point.”
“It’s so removed from everyday reality,” she says of how disconnected the average American is from the ongoing overseas conflicts. “The divide can be bridged through art. Art, when done well, creates empathy. We’re in an empathy crisis; each side is really entrenched in their own opinions, and we’re not listening to each other. For the three-and-a-half minutes of a song, you become that wife whose husband came back different, you become that kid whose father has missed your birthday year after year. My hope with this project is to try to step back from politics and try to get people to see what those who have served or are serving are going through.”
Smith is careful to note that SWS, unlike another Austin-based group called Soldier Songs & Voices, is not trying to teach the craft of songwriting to retreat attendees. The latter organization has chapters that meet weekly at local music venues and are overseen by volunteer facilitators; in terms Gauthier would appreciate, they’re the AA meetings that could follow SWS’s outpatient rehab.
Furthermore, SWS doesn’t claim to offer what can be officially classified as music therapy, although there’s an undeniable therapeutic aspect to what they’re doing.
“When their story is sung back to them and they feel seen and heard and known, and they experience empathy from the whole group, something shifts,” explains Gauthier. “It alchemizes some of the trauma to be witnessed and loved. When we sit down to write with them, we cry with them. Sometimes you have to put your guitar down and hug ’em and just weep. I don’t think therapists are allowed to do that. But a good song is way more than just a song when it touches on the truth.”