The last few times singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier has played the Grand Ole Opry, she was not the center of attention during her performance slot. The star of this show was military veteran and ace harmonica player Josh Geurtz. Mary met him while participating in a program called Songwriting with Soldiers. which pairs songwriters with vets and active-duty service members to craft songs about their military experience.
Her new album, “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” is a collection of songs created in those songwriting sessions, and Josh has now joined Mary on the Grand Ole Opry twice to perform the song they wrote together for the project, “Still on the Ride.”
“You can imagine the response,” Mary tells Rare Counry of the crowd reaction Josh got when he hit the Opry stage. “As soon as I introduced him, he gets a standing ovation. The standing ovation at the end of the song means basically I only get one song when I bring Josh, because the standing ovation lasts so long. The audience embraced him and loved him.”
Hear our full conversation here:
You can see footage of Josh’s Opry performance in this new piece from “CBS This Morning.”
Digging into the music on “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” you’ll find a collection of songs painting a searingly honest picture of what life is like for veterans and their families as they face the aftermath of combat and the difficult readjustment to civilian life. In battle, vulnerability is the enemy that can get you killed. In dealing with the trauma that comes from being in combat, vulnerability is often the key to healing. It’s a catch-22 that has few easy solutions and is a big factor in the mental health crisis affecting our veterans and their loved ones.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now estimates that between 20 and 25 veterans are committing suicide every day. That statistic almost included Mary’s friend and Grand Ole Opry guest, Josh. The traumatic brain and spine injury he sustained in battle left him confined to a wheelchair, on 100 percent disability and feeling hopeless.
“He had planned his suicide,” Mary says. “He had attempted a suicide and failed. His wife found Songwriting with Soldiers. He came to a retreat [and] got paired up with me. The song brought him hope, and he put down his weapon. He decided he wasn’t going to kill himself. This is a big, big deal. The experience of writing was a rung for him. Like, a ladder was lowered into his hole, and it gave him a rung. Once you have a rung, you can reach for the next one.”
She adds, “This is giving him a new way to be useful, and we talk about that a lot. He’s helping so many by using his voice with this song.”
Mary is uniquely equipped to help veterans like Josh find a way to shed light on their post-combat struggles, since she’s already done a similar exploration within herself. Mary’s enemies in battle were drugs and alcohol, and she got sober in July 1990. In order to address the personal confusion and trauma that fed her addiction, Mary turned to music.
She tells us, “I used my songwriting in a way, not knowing it, that helped me stay clean and sober. Recovery gave me stability, but songwriting gave me purpose.”
The process of mining her own life story in song has also given Mary the necessary skills to sit with soldiers and offer them a safe place to open up about their trauma.
Mary describes the Songwriting with Soldiers sessions saying, “As they speak, I turn what they’re saying into a melody, and that melody starts to become a verse or a chorus, and that verse or a chorus expands into a song, and then I play them their story back. Most of the time, they will cry because they feel seen, and heard and known around what they experienced as maybe the darkest moment of their life — the hardest thing. It’s so difficult to articulate this thing. When you’re traumatized, there are no words. All you can do is say, ‘It hurts.’ There’s no direct access through language to trauma, but, see, this is the power of song. You can get there through melody, and you can get there through metaphor. So, to experience someone who is having their song, their experience sung back to them for the first time is sacred.”
For Mary, participating in Songwriting with Soldiers and making the “Rifles and Rosary Beads” album from that project feels like a natural progression of her work in recovery.
She explains, “There’s some higher power guiding me through all of this. I didn’t understand any of this [when I started], but talking about it now, that this record is in the world, and looking back in retrospect, it’s like keys in a lock. It just makes perfect sense looking back. At the time, when you’re in it, you don’t know what’s what’s happening. It just feels right, and it feels like this is what I should be doing.”
Mary adds, “My whole life is about trying to be of service, and working with people from the service has deepened my understanding of how to do this. It feels fated, and I’m so grateful. I wake up full of energy and joy.”
Mary is also quick to point out that she gets just as much out of working with these veterans as they get out of telling their story. There’s no ego involved here. The music you hear on “Rifles and Rosary Beads” is all created in service of recovery for both Mary and the veterans she’s working with.
“I’m not the great Mary Gauthier helping poor, wounded veterans,” she says. “It’s [that] we’re all broken in similar ways, and we’re walking forward, hand-in-hand together. It is mutual. They help me every bit as much as I help them. What we’re doing is moving this story forward together. We found something that works. Does it fix things? No. Is it bringing hope? Yes. And that is important.”
Mary is performing songs from “Rifles and Rosary Beads” on her current tour. Get the dates here.