Still, the nation’s veterans are a group of brave individuals who no matter what soldier on. For her new album, “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier (say “Go-Shay” ya’ll – as she likes to say) bravely sat down with several of the nation’s Vets and put their complicated feelings into simple, visceral songs.
Gauthier is quite like a female John Prine, gruff-voiced but with tender lyrics and melodies. Songs like “I Drink” and “Mercy Now” are impenetrable once you hear them because like all great singer/songwriters - they write songs to be absorbed. What has long set Gauthier apart from the others is her wily sense of humor (“Christmas In Paradise” is both a funny and poignant portrait of homelessness). However, she knows those who fought in our wars and their families are simply no laughing matter.
For “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” Gauthier sat down with Veterans and even their spouses to write songs about their experiences, their pain and especially the ongoing loss. While you might cry listening to this powerful album (I did), it is by no means a downer. This patchwork of tales works great in combination with the writings of Tim O’Brien (“The Things They Carried”), Bobbie Ann Mason (“In Country”) and any book from local professor Andrew Wiest.
The imagery these vets inject into these songs is inspired. Joe Castella’s poetic “Rifles and Rosary Beads” is jaw-dropping in its simplicity as “whistling sunset bombs” lead to “blackness that has no sound.” Another song built on strict repetition is the withering machismo of “Got Your Six” whose couplet “No need to talk or testify/Just keep your story tucked inside”) speaks volumes.
Elsewhere, “Soldiering On” is a blistering meditation on service and sacrifice and “The War After The War” is a heartbreaking portrait of what awaited these valiant soldiers and their equally heroic families when they came home. The poignant “Bullet Holes In The Sky” is the closest to a typical Gauthier song. However, her little thumbnail sketches of these lives today (“Waitress asks me how I’m doing but I don’t know what to say”) are simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking.
Finally, the greatest accomplishment of “Rifles and Rosary Beads” is how it lets all the voices speak. We hear from both male (“Brothers” captures just how young soldiers were in Vietnam) and female (“Stronger Together” illuminates the lives of wives back home), different battlefields including “Iraq” and finally the ongoing battle within (“It’s Her Love” from soldier James Dooley).
Today is not Veterans Day - but it should be. Since so many of these courageous men and women left pieces of themselves overseas, we should take some piece of each day to honor their strength, their sacrifice and listen to these songs and all the stories that beautifully illustrate what it truly means to soldier on.
Mik Davis is a proud son of a veteran.