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The Next Song

How I learned to put my creative energy to work for veterans

I’ve been chasing songs since I was a 10-year-old kid in Brenham. Sitting in my room, day after day, rewriting songs by people like Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Leon Russell, I first discovered that songs carry secrets. Something happens when you tell a story, make it rhyme and put it to melody. A song is an envelope to hold the truth.

Once I realized it was possible to make a living writing songs, I wanted to be a rock star. But you never know where songs will lead you. I’ve recorded 14 albums and toured across the United States, through Canada and around Europe. Today, I use songs in ways I never thought possible.

This came to me after 40 years of searching for the next song.

Three years ago, I founded SongwritingWith:Soldiers. In this program, we pair professional songwriters with active-duty and veteran members of the military to write songs based on their stories of combat and their return home. Songwriters use their craft in the service of these stories. The collaborative process is all about listening, looking for the deep emotional truth that, when captured in lyrics and melody, will resonate not only with that soldier but also with anyone who might hear it.

There’s nothing like a song to tell the truth.

SongwritingWith:Soldiers grew out of my own search. Around the time I turned 40, after almost 20 years as a professional musician, I was growing restless with what I was able to do with my music.

In 2003, I started the Be An Artist program, visiting schools in the United States and Europe to speak with students about seeing themselves as artists, no matter their interests. At the end of each session, I would write a song with the group. I fell in love with writing songs with people who don’t write songs. The collaborative nature of the work, as well as the way people sat up straighter when their part of the song came around, fascinated me.

As I continued to write, record and tour, I followed my curiosity into projects such as working with homeless teenagers in Newark, New Jersey, at a center called Covenant House; writing songs about the damage of HIV and AIDS with locals in Johannesburg, South Africa, and rural Botswana; conflict resolution with young adults from Israel and the West Bank; a three-year artist-in-residence position at Oklahoma State University’s School of Entrepreneurship; and working with corporate clients. In every setting, the key to opening up pathways to another person’s truth was helping put their story into rhyme and melody.

In 2008, I was asked to perform at the United States military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. During my show—which the audience didn’t seem to enjoy much—I was thinking that I had absolutely nothing in common with the soldiers. I felt that we were from different sides of a divide that I wasn’t really much interested in crossing. All I saw were uniforms. I didn’t see the individuals in the uniforms.

A Marine named Fred Cale completely changed my perspective.

He came up after my show, and as we stood talking about songs, guitars, Iraq and military life, we realized that I knew his brother-in-law. Then we discovered that the best man at his wedding had operated a club in Monroe, Louisiana, where I played back in the early 1980s.

When I let myself see it, we had a great deal in common.

Standing there talking with Cale, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to write songs with this man?” Maybe I could go to Iraq and write with soldiers. It wouldn’t be too different from the songwriting I did with homeless kids.

Cale and I emailed back and forth for about six months before we realized that it was just too complicated to get me into a war zone. He suggested I meet with some contacts he had in the Texas Army National Guard. Maybe I could find someone to write with. I knew there was a song that needed to be written, but I couldn’t find it. I wanted that next song.

As a step in this quest, I had lunch with Maj. Gen. John Furlow, head of the Texas Army National Guard, and five of his assistants at Threadgill’s restaurant in downtown Austin. During lunch, just as I began thinking again that we didn’t have much in common, we discovered that my high school friend, Bo Kenyon, flew the helicopter for Furlow.

Now, that was too much.

It was clear to me that there was a connection among us, but I couldn’t find the song. So I started visiting Austin’s Camp Mabry once a month to sit around a table and have conversations. I listened to stories, to explanations on the meaning of service and duty, on what it means to wear a uniform. I’d never really thought about these things in this way. I was gripped by the sense of calling and sacrifice among these men and women. And I was gripped by their willingness to give when others do not.

At the third meeting, I heard the phrase “angel flight.” I straightened in my seat and said, “What a great song title.” Pause. “Ummm, what’s an angel flight?”

They told me that when a soldier dies and they fly his or her body home, that’s an angel flight. I had my song. Or rather, their song. The Air Guard arranged for me to speak with one of their members, a pilot who flies for Southwest Airlines for his regular job but on weekends flies fallen soldiers home. This pilot’s words formed the basis for the entire first verse of the song. Like the words of Cale and other military men and women, these words changed the course of my life and work.

Based on those conversations, my friend Radney Foster and I wrote “Angel Flight” in Nashville, commissioned by the Texas Guard. Radney recorded the song on his record and made a video that went viral, and pretty soon we were getting emails from all over the globe from people who were moved by the words. Words that I couldn’t have written before I met Cale. Words that were possible because a few human beings—some wearing uniforms, some not—found their connecting thread through the truth conveyed in a story and a song.

One of the emails I got was from a man in Colorado Springs who ran an organization called LifeQuest Transitions that helped soldiers move from military to civilian life. At his invitation, I went to write with some of the veterans in the program. From that experience, from witnessing the transformative power of collaborative songwriting, came the idea for SongwritingWith:Soldiers.

Over the past three years, with guidance from Executive Director Mary Judd, the organization has worked with more than 130 individuals in the military across the United States to write more than 150 songs.

All musicians want to move people with their work by striking an emotional nerve and taking the listener on a journey, but this is especially true of songwriters. At one of our first retreats, a veteran named Scott McRae told us that the retreat “restored my faith in humanity. I didn’t think anybody cared.” After a recent retreat, veteran Sandi Primous reported that she’d finally found the confidence to make a literal journey, joining a Harley-Davidson group ride across Texas. That to me is the highest use of my craft, of song: bringing about a change in someone, a shift of perspective. It can happen through the collaboration or simply when you find your truth reflected in someone else’s song. That’s the magic.

In many ways, I’m no different today from that 10-year-old kid who was in love with a story and trying to figure out how to put it into a song. I didn’t see my life turning out this way. I wanted to be a successful songwriter and for years, I thought that meant following my own songs, getting on the radio, serving myself. Through SongwritingWith:Soldiers, I have learned how to direct my craft and creativity out into the world. My world has grown bigger, full of new stories. With every group of veterans, there’s always a next song, a song that needs to be written, a song that will change lives.

It’s not where I thought I would be. It’s better.

Singer-songwriter Darden Smith makes his home in Austin.