By David Rogers. January 14, 2017. BOONE, NC — Profound thoughts often come at the most unusual times and perhaps even on the most unexpected occasions. Case in point: The Appalachian chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) met on Saturday at the Watauga County Library — and I came away with a new perspective of war veterans.
Matthew Williams, is a Florida-based retired Army captain who served two tours of duty as a chaplain in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now travels the country with a special kind of ministry through music, as well as one-on-one counseling with veterans. Some he knew during his own deployments, many he has never met but knows their need, their grief, their personal turmoil.
Every job in the military during war means something because it usually is about life and death.
Williams was the guest speaker at Saturday’s Appalachian workshop. He shared some of his personal experiences, as well as the motivations for writing songs. Predictably, the two original songs that he performed for the dozen or so aspiring songwriters gathered at the library dealt with veterans-related issues, especially post-traumatic stress.
“I’m not the best guitar player or the best singer,” Williams admitted to the group, “but when I play and sing these for veterans — I call them members of my ‘tribe’ — the message and the passion resonates with them. They tell me that I capture what they are feeling and what they are experiencing.
“Think about what these men and women encounter when they get out of the service,” said Williams, who will soon complete requirements for a doctorate degree. “They come home to find jobs to continue supporting their families. Many are told they are unqualified or just outright rejected. Some end up taking minimum wage jobs out of desperation, even though the income is not nearly enough, but it is something.
Writing songs is sacred.
“Think about the psyche of the war veteran,” he added. “Every job in the military during war means something because usually it is about life and death. The guy changing a flat tire in the middle of the desert knows that he has to get the job done, and done fast, because the lives of scores, if not hundreds of soldiers and other military personnel depends on that vehicle getting from here to there. Even what is the most menial job at home is vitally important in war. That soldier has a keen sense of his value. He gets back home and he’s working at Sam’s Tire Shop, fixing a flat tire on Bobbi Sue’s old car and he gets paid barely above minimum wage. What happens to his sense of self-worth?”
“I tell people to write songs that are about their life experiences,” Williams noted. “Because that is what they know, down in their soul. I write about post traumatic stress because I am a medically retired Army chaplain. Chronic pain and post traumatic stress are part of my daily life. If I can help a member of my tribe deal with their issues through my music, all the better.”
When a great, even iconic song rolls off the lips of a successful recording artist like Bob Dylan, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, or Taylor Swift, it seems effortless and even destined to have become a multi-million dollar seller.
Songwriters are artists. You write because you have to.
That’s the exception rather than the rule, Williams and other more experienced songwriters in attendance on Saturday explained to the others.
“Writing songs is hard work. It takes time, and it is sacred,” Williams declared.
David Wiseman of Burnsville, NC is one of those more experienced singer-songwriters in attendance on Saturday. He spends time at The Pizza Shop and Dry County Gulch in Spruce Pine, but in February he’ll be performing at a range of watering holes from Johnson City to St. Petersburg to Orlando.
Wiseman played two songs for the group, “Sam Stone,” which also had a theme somewhat focused on a military veteran coming home, and “Sit Down, Mrs. Brown,” a well-crafted new song focused on racial hatred.
“Eighteen months,” the singer-songwriter from the mountains of Western North Carolina explained to Blowing Rock News later about how long he had worked on one of his songs.
Appalachian NSAI chapter coordinator Kevin Troyer, as well as retired Army chaplain Williams emphasized at the beginning of the session that the most financially successful singer-songwriters don’t start out with a money motivation. “Songwriters are artists,” observed Williams. “You write because you have to. You write because you have something to say and music is how you choose to say it.”
The Appalachian chapter of Nashville Songwriters Association International meets every second Saturday at Watauga County Library. All interests levels are invited and the workshop is free of charge. Participants have an opportunity to share songs, or perhaps other writing, i.e. poetry, that they are considering to become the basis for a song.
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