Basic differences between hawks and doves aside, on her latest album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier leaves politics behind battle lines and concerns herself with the walking wounded: Soldiers who live with trauma in the aftermath of waging war.
The collection of songs is the result of Gauthier’s collaborations with veterans; the album is a powerful statement on the ways that art, specifically songs, can shine a light into dark corners of the mind, help people grieve their losses, and make way for improving the quality of life in the aftermath of extreme upset.
Released in January, Gauthier remains on the road, performing the songs that have contributed to her receiving some of the greatest reviews of her career; among other distinctions, Rifles & Rosary Beads is nominated for The Americana Music Association’s Album of The Year (to be announced on September 12 at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville).
It was just over 20 years ago at age 35 that Gauthier started making music, a found gift following recovery from her own personal trauma that preceded then culminated in addiction to drugs and alcohol. Her experience has taught her some things about life, time’s ability to heal, and the role creative expression plays in repairing fractured psyches: No matter how deep or superficial the wound, there is relief from despair in releasing pain, in this case through music.
Struggling to survive in the face of post-traumatic-stress, induced by the physical and psychic burdens of war, a soldier’s journey takes its toll not only on the veteran, but on families and loved ones. Gauthier and her songwriting partners, the men and women who survived the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, were brought together by the Songwriting With Soldiers program. Started by performing songwriter Darden Smith six years ago as a way for vets to extract their trauma and turn it into something greater, Gauthier’s experience at their retreat was so profound, she came away with the idea to pursue an album’s worth of material. For the soldiers, working with professional songwriters has had the ability to turn the often isolating experiences of combat and returning home into powerful medicine: Songwriting becomes a tool for healing not only their own souls but by extension, their shattered bonds among family and even with the world around them.
“Because the results are so dramatic, this could work for other traumas,” says Gauthier in a statement on her website. The idea is that people, in this case veterans, are seen and heard and their isolation is broken. With the songwriting process, “We’ve found something powerful here that brings hope to people who are hurting.”
Whatever the emotional and physical wounding, the songs on Rifles & Rosary Beads don’t just involve battlefield scenarios; rather, they take on the inner lives of male and female soldiers and the scarring felt by spouses, too. And while John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald and others have certainly written about the dilemma of the soldier returning from war, in their cases Vietnam, and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was in essence a plea for people to boycott war all together, Gauthier’s and the veteran’s compositions look head-on at the reality of the contemporary human cost of the war machine.
Sometimes the wounding is imperceptible, especially in the case of depression, traumatic brain injury and other silent killers that compound a grief too great to bear. “The War After The War,” conveys in title, as well as in the words and performance, the dilemma of the returning soldier’s spouse. “Brothers,” written with Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad, covers the complexities of being a woman at war.
Rifles & Rosary Beads is Gauthier’s tenth album in a music career that has certainly been distinguished and exceptional, even allowing for its relatively late start. That she continues to thrive, as a woman of 56 in a notoriously sexist and youth-oriented business, is an achievement worth celebrating itself. The fact she’s drawn out the lives of veterans, with their participation, and is assisting in their healing, as well as that of their families and of our society deserves some kind of special honor as not yet named. Wherever she takes her gifts from here, Gauthier’s collaborative work on Rifles & Rosary Beads has made a meaningful change in the lives of veterans; it’s also a mighty demonstration of a way to wage peace in our world of perpetual wars.
Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.
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