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Songwriter Mary Gauthier's collaborations with war veterans hit home

Peter Blackstock
Mary Gauthier plays May 31 and June 1 at Cactus Cafe. [Contributed/Laura Partain]

Mary Gauthier remembers the day at a songwriting retreat when Jennifer Marino, a combat pilot in the Iraq War, was talking about the difficulties veterans face when they return home.

“She was trying to explain to me why we’re losing 22 soldiers a day to their own hand,” says Gauthier, a Nashville songwriter known for tackling difficult issues compassionately in her music. “We’ve lost far more soldiers to suicide back home than we’ve lost in a 19-year-old war.”

Here’s the problem: “Sometimes the training to shut down the emotions that allows a human being to do what needs to be done in battle is the exact wrong thing to do when you’re dealing with intense emotions at home,” Gauthier says, relaying what Moreno told her at that retreat. “Shutting down blocks people out. And when you’re blocking people out, you’re removing yourself and becoming more and more and more isolated.”

In “Soldiering On,” the first song on Gauthier’s landmark 2018 album “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” it all boils down to this line: “What saves you in the battle can kill you at home.” Gauthier credits Marino directly for the lyric: “She said it. I just wrote it down.”

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Much of “Rifles & Rosary Beads” was written in just that manner. It all got started through Songwriting With Soldiers, an Austin-based nonprofit founded in 2012 by Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith. Gauthier started participating a few years ago in the organization’s retreats, which pair war veterans with accomplished songwriters to provide a creative outlet for the issues veterans deal with back home.

Nashville songwriter Darrell Scott, who’s written major hits for the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill and others, got involved early and persuaded Gauthier to sign up. “Darrell said, ‘You’ve got to do this; don’t even ask why, you just have to do it.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know anything about the military; I don’t think I’d be good at this at all.’ He said, ‘Nope, you just have to do it.’”

Gauthier’s first retreat was with women soldiers. “The stories they told blew my mind, and the songs that were written in that retreat were just incredibly powerful. So I just begged Darden to let me do it again.”

Eventually Gauthier had written several dozen songs with veterans both male and female, and with their spouses and family members. Eleven of those numbers ended up on “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” which came out in January 2019. The record went on to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category.

It didn’t win, but the awareness it raised has kept Gauthier and her partner, formerly Austin-based songwriter Jaimee Harris, plenty busy on the road for more than a year now. “It’s been a wild ride,” Gauthier says. “Since it came out, we haven’t stopped. We’re already booking January (2020), and it’s May. The world does want to hear these songs, and there’s a great interest in the story. I didn’t know if there would be.”

Gauthier and Harris will bring the songs to Austin for two nights at the Cactus Cafe on Friday and Saturday. Gauthier says about half of her 90-minute set will focus on songs from the record, with the rest covering other phases of her two-decades-plus career in music. Harris will open both shows as well as accompany Gauthier.

In previous interviews about the project, Gauthier has noted that whatever outlet she’s provided for the veterans she’s written with, they’ve given her much more in return. Foremost among those gifts: “A sense of purpose as a songwriter,” she says. “And in my case more understanding of the power of songs. Which I think I instinctively knew, but only as it applied to me. I wasn’t fully in touch with the power intrinsic in songs for humanity.

“A song can build a bridge from someone who’s traumatized to the outside world, and remove isolation. That connection can be life-saving, and transforming. It can bring hope. I think Steve Earle said it best: He said songs are empathy. Songs certainly help us to get inside the experience of someone else, and be in their skin.”

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Since much of the material from the Songwriting With Soldiers project didn’t make it onto “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” Gauthier has been pondering possible future outlets. A whole other record could be made from songs written with Vietnam veterans, who “are carrying an incredibly heavy load,” she says. Another, she adds, could focus specifically on the female perspective.

At the moment, most of her non-touring time has been focused on a book she’s writing for St. Martin’s Press. “It’s a combination songwriting book and memoir,” she says. “I think it’s going to be called ‘Saved By A Song.’ There’s a redemptive quality in the songs that draw me in, and the songs I try to write, that is bigger than just the entertainment industry.

“I’m trying to articulate how that works for me, and then get into getting sober and grabbing onto songwriting as sort of literally a lifeboat. And then fast-forward 25 years and watching the veterans do the same thing when you write with them.”

Songwriting With Soldiers has involved dozens of writers and produced hundreds of songs that are posted on the organization’s website. Gauthier says she believes the endeavor is historically important. “I think we’re kind of sitting on the Civil War diaries of this endless war in the Middle East.”

“I feel like we’re collecting these stories almost in an Alan Lomax kind of way,” she adds, suggesting that the effort has become an indelible part of the cultural folk process (Lomax, born in Austin in 1915, was known for recording and archiving folk music). “I’m so blessed to intersect with Darden, who helped expand that understanding. They (the veterans) continue to give me more than I can ever give them.”


Mary Gauthier with Jaimee Harris

When: 8:30 p.m. May 31 and June 1

Where: Cactus Cafe, 2247 Guadalupe St.

Tickets: $25-$30;