I have been thinking about this question all morning as a I lay here in the half-awake-traveling-musician's-state-of-mind on a couch in Los Angeles. I have a show tonight in Hollywood at the American Legion Post 43. The show was booked and created by my dear friend and Iraq veteran Dan Roberts. Dan and I have gotten to be good friends ever since we helped to kick-start the Green Bay, WI Chapter of Guitars for Vets. Recently, he moved to LA and started the G4V Chapter in LA. Heʼs about to graduate his second class of Guitars for Vets students. Dan is in his early 30ʻs and was injured himself in Iraq after he stepped on a land mine. He went through the G4V program in Zablocki VA in Milwaukee. I am so proud of this organization and being a spokesperson for G4V fulfills part of my dream for my own career. I truly am a believer in the healing power of music. I have been a believer in this long before I ever got involved with Guitars for Vets.
The organizationʼs motto is, “Putting the healing power of music into the hands of our nationʼs heroes.” It sounds poetic, but in reality, it is a very simple explanation of what we do. We teach guitar lessons to injured veterans. We pair volunteer teachers with traumatized veterans in a safe environment and then after 6 weeks we give them a donated guitar. That guitar is their tool for their own personal healing journey. I have had about 5 young vets tell me that this program has saved their life. They have told me that they know for sure, that the connections and experiences they had working with G4V people stopped them from committing suicide. Before working with guitars for vets, I have only had one person tell me that. She told me she sat up all night and reminded herself that there are good people in this world and that listening to my music kept her alive one night. I have no idea how these things happen. I am humbled and honored by this. But I also believe that I am only a conduit for the music, and that part of my reason for being here on earth, is to bring that healing energy through from a higher source. That doesnʼt make me holy, or better than anyone else, or even special, because every person has the capability to do this. I believe when you engage with the creative force in whatever capacity works for you and you just forget about your ego-self, and let the creativity work through you, that you canʼt help but to heal your self and other people will be affected by your openness and work.
I grew up in the generation that had a grandparents in world war II and parents in Vietnam. Now my own generation is affected by this decade long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. People ask me why did you get involved in this program? I think we, all Americans, vets or non-vets, are involved in this legacy of wars. I guess it always haunted me to see the fall-out effects of Vietnam on my generationʼs parents and in turn, on us, as their kids. Not everybody who went through that war or was drafted showed their PTSD through alchoholism, addictions or what seemed to be bizarre behavior. Alot of people just seemed totally normal on the surface and would never talk about it, but held alot of nightmares inside. It made them hardened and not totally present as fathers.
When we went to Washington DC, I was a kid on a family vacation. I remember I was totally caught off guard by the experience of watching my father start to weep at The Wall as he searched for the names of his friends who had died in Vietnam. That experience really blew me away as a kid because my father had never really cried in front of me, and especially not in public. I wrote a song about that too called, “You can Love your Country.” Itʼs on the Neil Young song list.
I protested the war when it started because it seemed so pre-emptive, and not really like the correct solution to 911. It just didn't make sense to me. After a few protests during the Bush administration, I realized that we werenʼt going to stop the war, because they had already started it again. It made me cry the night George Bush announced our countryʼs plans because I felt like we would never get out of it, and now it has been over ten years and we are still in it.
Back then, I thought,...."protesting the war isnʼt helping. Maybe I can at least help people who have been at the front lines with what I do well. I can play and teach music." Guitars for Vets helped me to find a mode of expression for their personal story. The vets I know are some of the most honest and idealistic people in my life. They are people who have stories to tell that people need to hear. I am interested in working with people who have conviction and clearly stand up for what they believe in. I respect that.
After I came home to visit from Nashville, I ran into Dan and Pat (co-founders of G4V) at a G4V fund raiser at Linnemanʼs Pub in Milwaukee. I was so moved by their speech that I almost wanted to cry. Then it dawned on me they had already been in correspondence with me back in Nashville about playing fundraising shows. I introduced myself that night in person and ever since then I have been working with Guitars for Vets.
I started out as a beginner teacher and then I moved onto teaching and assisting with group lessons every week at the DOM123 in the VA hospital. One day at class, one of the participants asked me to play some of my own songs. He kept saying, “I could never write a song. Thatʼs great.I wish I could do that.” And I kept laughing and saying, “Yes you can. Anytime you want to just ask me and weʼll write one together.” A few weeks later, Al Harrison and I started writing “Dusty Old Road.” He had a chord progression idea and I made up a little melody. I said, while strumming the guitars with him at the DOM's activity room round table, “you know what I see?...I see a man walking down a dusty old road around sunset all by himself out in the country just thinking about his life....on a dirt road in the fall...” Alʼs eyes lit up, and he said, ”Thatʼs what I see...how did you do that?” “I donʼt know," I said, "itʼs just that sometimes the music tells you what the story is.” So we collected ideas and stories from his and his wife's experiences serving in the military and I wrote them all down. Then we put the song together over the next few weeks in person and over email.
I am really proud of this song because it has a really powerful spirit.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writers were working on a story about G4V and wanted copies of it before it was even completely finished. When I went back to Tennessee, I recorded the song one night in my friend Dave McCormickʼs home studio so I could give it to Al and the reporters. Al and I played our song at the Rock the Rumble event in Harley Davidson Museum and at the Vietnam Veteran tribute at LZ Lambeau Field last year. Weʼve been mentioned in Vintage Guitar Magazine, interviewed by NBC nightly news reporters, and local TV news as well. I have traveled all over and played this song, even on big radio stations that donʼt allow non pre-programmed songs to be played on the air. A few weeks ago in Minneapolis at a G4V event, I played our song with the Blood on the Tracks Band. (The guys who played on Bob Dylanʼs Blood on the Tracks record. My fave Dylan record!) Al has told me in front of reporters, that writing this song really helped him on a personal level. He is a 21 year Merchant Marine Vet who was injured (partially paralyzed in a wheel chair after trying to save a fellow sailorʼs life) After the trauma he experienced during his service and then ending up disabled he told me his PTSD was taking a toll on his family life and he fell into a depression. He told me this program has really helped his communication with friends and family. His wife told me the same thing as well...so now we know itʼs true...ha. Anyways, I am totally honored to have written "Dusty Old Road" with him and I have it set as one of my goals to write more songs with the vets in our program til I have a collection together of real folk music.
I never thought about what would happen with the song when were writing the song in the VA together. Songs are supposed to tell stories and tell the truth. Songs are supposed to be representative of the collective memory of people or a personʼs human experience. I am honored to write with the veterans in our program. It is an extremely personal task to open up about your deepest feelings and share that with your co-writer. Then allowing it to be shared with the world is another level of letting go and trust. I am interested in writing songs that move people on a deeper level. Getting an opportunity to write with the veterans in Guitars for Vets is a huge gift to me. I love to see people proud of what they helped to create. If I can lend the voice to that, then I am using my gifts for a worthy purpose.