Mary Gauthier: Rifles And Rosary Beads
Proper Records – 26 January 2018
Nashville based singer songwriter Mary Gauthier is widely recognised as one of America’s most remarkable performers and songwriters. Her songs are famous for their deeply personal, cathartic content. Although instantly recognisable musically, Mary’s tenth album, Rifles And Rosary Beads, takes its inspiration not from her own life experience, but from those shared by US military veterans and their families, as part of a program that exists to help those affected by the aftermath of combat – SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
This is a powerful, emotive topic; and it’s difficult to imagine a more potent start to an album than Soldiering On.
“I was bound to something bigger
More important than a single human life”
Beneath Mary’s familiar vocal drawl; acoustic guitar punches and electric guitar moans. Then a violin cries as percussion comes in like heavy artillery. Soldiering On was co-written with US Marine veteran Jennifer Marino and came about as a result of a unique program that provides emotional support to military veterans and their families, by arranging weekend workshops with professional songwriters. The song recognises one of the many struggles faced by returning personnel; that military life can be completely incompatible with what the rest of us see as normal everyday life. Family relationships simply don’t work with the mindset needed to be an active combatant.
“What saves you in the battle
Can kill you at home”
It’s a song of immense power, and it’s the first of eleven equally compelling songs.
When Mary Gauthier released her debut album, Dixie Kitchen, in 1997, she was 35 years old and had some hard stories to tell. Through nine critically acclaimed and award-winning albums she’s written and performed profoundly moving songs covering addiction, abandonment, fear and, ultimately, love. Rifles And Rosary Beads is her tenth album, and it’s the shared trauma in other people’s lives, rather than her own, that has inspired these songs.
The War After the War tackles a similar theme to the album’s opener, highlighting the struggles faced by the family and friends combatants return to. Written with Beth Nielsen Chapman and six EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) wives, the melody evokes images of a dance floor; with dancers supporting their unsteady partners in a mournful semblance of a waltz, before Will Kimbrough‘s slide guitar and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s spine-tingling harmonies give way to Michele Gazich‘s last dance violin. Mary Gauthier has said before that a good song should always end on a question, this one asks some very pressing questions indeed…
“Who’s going to care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?”
A performance at a US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany was a life-changing episode for Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith. The event brought home to him the struggles that many of the 2.5 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan endure after returning home, the lasting effect combat has on them and their loved ones. Darden was determined to do something more than just perform for these people, and since 2012 SongwritingWith:Soldiers (www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org) has helped veterans tell their own stories, and in doing so rebuild lost trust, release pain.
There’s no doubt that taking part in the program has radically influenced Mary Gauthier’s approach to songwriting “My job as a songwriter is to find that thing a soul needs to say,” She’s done far more than take part in this worthy program, though, she’s embraced it whole-heartedly; contributing to a collection of almost 400 songs written by professional songwriters in collaboration with military veterans and their families. All the songs have been recorded, but Mary has brought 11 of those to a specially created home studio, to record them for this album.
It’s clear that SongwritingWith:Soldiers has succeeded in encouraging veterans to open up to their songwriting partners in ways that are significant and productive. The unimaginable intensity of active service is highlighted as the rock/pop beat and dark throb of guitar for Got Your Six. A song that recognises the strong, and essential, bond of care within a fighting unit. The title track, Rifles And Rosary Beads, paints a more isolated picture – a portrait created, initially, with voice and guitar only. A lonely litany of anchors and fears placed in a deserted church hall by a distant, echoing piano.
Some of the topics that have emerged from these workshops are less predictable. Issues such as PTSD and the problems faced by veterans’ families are familiar – not as familiar as they should be, but there is public awareness. Sexual assault in the armed forces is an issue far fewer people would be willing to engage, and its inclusion in the experiences shared by those taking part in the program is a testament to its effectiveness. Iraq is a gently lulling singer-songwriter classic, other than the fact that it tells the true story of a female army mechanic trying to find her place in a traditionally masculine hierarchy; and the sexual harassment and assault she was subjected to. In Brothers, the lack of recognition for women’s roles as combatants is brought home, and Mary returns to asking important questions. A softened rock beat pulses behind a vocal that somehow manages to be harsh and plaintive at the same time.
“Kept you in my view
I’d die for you
Don’t that make me a brother too”?
Returning to the album’s opening theme, coping with a return to civilian life, Still On The Ride reflects on the feelings of guilt suffered by a combat survivor. That conflict is matched in Bullet Holes In The Sky, a poignant and poetic song built around guitar, minimal piano and an eerie drone. The song is bound to have a wide impact, as its subject finds no comfort in a Veteran’s Day Parade.
“They thank me for my service
and wave those little flags
They genuflect on Sundays,
and I know they’d send us back”
To close the album, there’s an almost anthemic note of positivity, in Stronger Together. War is a bleak subject, but Rifles And Rosary Beads draws to a fitting conclusion with a song of unity, a song that recognises, and embraces a collective strength.
In terms of the themes covered and the impact they have, this album is completely unpredictable. The issues raised go well beyond the usual public discussions on the needs of combat veterans and their families. Perhaps that’s because we’re listening to the voices of those very people. The album does what Mary says a song should; it leaves us with questions. Some of the answers come about quite quickly. The album, for instance, does well to avoid discussing foreign policy. This is not about politics; it’s about real life.
The real life facts are that since suicide rates among serving members of the US armed forces exceeded that of civilians for the first time in 2008, the numbers have steadily increased. The fact is that there are on average 22 deaths from suicide every day among US military veterans. Rifles And Rosary Beads is a small selection of exceptional songs from a unique, and valuable project. In fact, remarkable really doesn’t cover it. When Mary Gauthier writes, records, performs, you expect remarkable; that’s what her music is. Rifles And Rosary Beads goes far beyond remarkable.
Order Rifles and Rosary Beads here: http://smarturl.it/riflesandrosarybeads
UK & Ireland Tour Dates
MAY 4 FRI – Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart
MAY 5 SAT – Waterfront Hall Studio, Belfast
MAY 6 SUN – Kilkenny Roots Festival, Kilkenny
MAY 8 TUE – The Tunnels, Bristol
MAY 9 WED – St. Barnabas Church, Oxford
MAY 10 THU – Kings Place, London
MAY 11 FRI – The Bear Club, Luton
MAY 12 SAT – The HUBS, Sheffield
MAY 13 SUN – Saint Luke’s, Glasgow
MAY 14 MON – The Met, Bury
MAY 16 WED – The Glee Club, Nottingham
Photo Credit: Laura E Partain