As this series would testify “classic” comes in many forms. Album or artist having been around for years would rank high on the list of qualifications. Mary Gauthier has certainly been around for a while with many memorable records to her name. Her first major-label release ‘Mercy Now’ would perhaps be a natural choice but if music is a healer then this, her tenth album ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’, is an even greater classic.
Once again Gauthier delves deep into the human condition with a profound intensity but this time she draws not from her own experience but other people’s. The album is a collection of songs Gauthier co-wrote with wounded military veterans in the Songwriting With Soldiers programme. This is a retreat set up by Darden Smith where around a dozen veterans put their experience of war and its effects into song with the help of the participating musicians. Darrell Scott persuaded Gauthier to join the programme, something she admitted was a daunting prospect. None of the participating veterans was an artist but with her help each wrote three songs over the retreat’s two days. As Gauthier remarked, “We don’t have a choice. We have to stay focused, listen carefully, and make sure every veteran gets their own song. And we always do”.
The result is that the process of creating songs and music out of their trauma has made a very positive impact on the veterans’ long rehabilitation.
‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ is a masterpiece of channelling emotion. Mary Gauthier and her co-writers pull no punches and the result makes humbling listening. Together they have created a lasting record of the horrors and personal consequences of war. But she does show a way through such devastation.
The songs relate not just what happened in the war zone but focus particular attention to the long-lasting effects of war, physical and psychological, on men and women. These are not limited to the veterans themselves but the impact their traumas have on their families. Gauthier quotes a terrifying statistic; on average 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
The record starts with the powerful ‘Soldiering On’, a song that builds in intensity both lyrically and musically. The tie between soldiers who have fought together are tighter than those with their relatives back home, “the closest family I have loved”. It also warns of a theme that runs throughout, the lasting effects of warfare, “what saves you in battle can kill you back home”.
‘The War After The War’ makes very clear that the effect of battle does not just affect those who fought. Their lives have changed forever but so have the lives of those back home. “Who’s going to care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war/ Landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor?” A lamenting fiddle and pedal steel amplify the pathos.
Though all these compositions cut straight through the emotions, ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’ makes the deepest incision. Its spare piano and acoustic guitar lines accentuate the distance here between the returning soldiers and those lining the streets, “They thank me for my service/ And wave their little flags/ They genuflect on Sundays/ And yes, they’d send us back”.
A chilling aspect that emerges from these sessions is how women making sacrifices no different to men are not always an equal part of that military bond. Take ’Brothers’, “I’d die for you/ Don’t that make me a brother too?” At an agonising funereal pace, the imagery is stark as the song pans out across the sheer ruin of war in all its facets; places, people, minds. There are two songs that almost contradict each other. ‘Iraq’ describes the horror of a female mechanic brutalised by her so-called comrades in arms whereas ‘Stronger Together’ says just that; despite everything veterans do have to stick together.
On his BBC radio show Bob Harris played ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’. He first heard this song on Veterans Day in Nashville when Mary Gauthier played it at an impromptu songwriters’ gathering. It reduced him to tears. While nothing beats a live rendition, this and the other ten songs that make up ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ has exactly the same effect.
These are experiences that most of us can barely comprehend. Painful though they may be, these are eleven poems set to some of the most haunting music that reverberate for some time. For an act of such kindness and therapy ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ is most certainly a Classic Americana Album for which Gauthier should have the last word, “My job as a songwriter is to find that thing a soul needs to say”.