Nashville songwriter gives voice to veterans' experiences on new 'Rifles & Rosary Beads'

Five years ago, when the founders of SongwritingWith:Soldiers asked Mary Gauthier to attend a retreat where she would write songs with military veterans, she agreed to do it. But leading up to the weekend, she was a bundle of nerves.

Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) didn't have any experience with the military, and even though the singer and guitarist had been writing, recording and performing songs for 20 years, she didn't know how she'd co-write multiple songs in one weekend.

But that first weekend, Gauthier helped bring two songs to fruition. “I fell in love with my co-writers, the veterans,” she said recently by phone from her home in Nashville.

In the last five years, Gauthier has written nearly 40 songs with veterans. “Looking over them, it's like, dang, these are good songs!” she said. “They should go in the world and people should hear them.”

To that end, Gauthier recently released Rifles & Rosary Beads, a collection of 11 gut-wrenching country, folk and roots-rock songs that came out of the intimate SongwritingWith:Soldiers sessions. In the songs, which were all written in under two hours, Gauthier gives voice to veterans as they process the trauma of war and the jarring experience of returning home with physical and emotional wounds.

“What saves you in the battle can kill you at home,” she sings on leadoff track “Soldiering On.”

“When you've been through trauma, you carry shame. Trauma causes a person to feel as though they did something wrong,” Gauthier said. “That shame is the poison that needs to be taken from the wound.”

The songwriting process, she said, extracts that poison. After finding a quiet spot at a retreat center, Gauthier begins by asking veterans about their lives, their experiences in the military and what they might like to say.

“They'll start talking, and at a certain point I pick up a guitar and try to find music that matches what they're telling me,” she said. “Music is a powerful, powerful thing. It acts like a magnet and it pulls the story out. … They'll say, ‘I've never told this to anybody.' Or, ‘No one knows this about me.' I hear that a lot.”

The songwriting sessions work, Gauthier said, because of the creative process and because of her role. She's not a therapist or a family member. She doesn't work for Veterans Affairs. She's a neutral party. “I'm like a midwife,” she said. “The midwife doesn't judge the baby. The baby is beautiful, period. And you sit with the birthing process and encourage, but there's not a tugging or a pushing. It will happen. The songs always come. Every single person always gets their song.”

Veterans also have veto power over every word and every note of a song. “They need to know that we're not writing about them. We're writing with them,” she said.

Gauthier is so convinced of and moved by the healing power of SongwritingWith:Soldiers that she's working on a TED Talk about the program in hopes that it can be applied to other types of trauma.

“We've got 150,000 kids in this country who've been a part of a school shooting,” she said. “If that's not war, what is? They've been on the other side of an AR-15 that was firing. They've seen their friends killed. They've walked through blood. That's trauma.”