Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines
MTSU student veterans and songwriters, either based on campus or in Nashville, participated in the life-altering process of translating military memories, hardships and relationships into song Friday in the Bragg Media and Entertainment Building.
Operation Song, which was founded in 2012 by Bob Regan, is a nonprofit organization that pairs professional songwriters and veterans with the purpose of sharing stories and working through the “puzzle pieces” of various experiences. The nonprofit holds weekly workshops and retreats throughout Middle Tennessee, such as the one-day songwriting retreat held at MTSU.
Before Operation Song, Regan, who is a Grammy and Dove-nominated country-music songwriter, was a part of the Armed Forces Entertainment tour, which traveled with deployments around the world. There, he witnessed firsthand how soldiers were affected by their military experiences.
“I thought that songwriters were armchair therapists anyway,” Regan said. “We tell stories to each other and try to make them make sense. And I thought that may work to put a songwriter with a veteran together. That was the initial idea. Now, it’s five years and over 500 songs later … It’s one thing to just tell your story, but when you put it to music, it just hits you in a different place.”
When Regan first brought Operation Song to MTSU in 2016, he reached out to his friend and fellow songwriter Odie Blackmon, who is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and an MTSU commercial songwriting professor.
“(Regan) said that he had this program going on and was wondering if I would like to include my students,” Blackmon said. “I said, ‘Hell yes, Bob. I would like to include my students.’ It gives them the chance to work with a hit songwriter and teaches them to get outside of themselves, get inside someone else’s head and to hear their story.”
During the one-day MTSU retreat, which was sponsored by Operation Song, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the MTSU Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center, students from Blackmon’s songwriting practicum course were paired with a professional songwriter from Nashville and a student veteran. The students were then tasked to assist in the creation of a unique song based on the experiences of the veterans. At the end of the day, the groups performed the new songs for an audience.
One of the retreat’s trios included Rob Crosby, who has written eight singles that have been on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, Trey Smith, a student veteran and president of the MTSU chapter of Student Veterans of America, and Matthew Holley, a junior songwriting student at MTSU.
“We were specifically trying to write a song about Trey’s life experience and military experience,” Crosby said. “We used a whole lot of his words, verbatim, as we wove the lyrics together. So, it’s kind of like Trey’s song today.”
Smith is a third-generation military veteran. Smith’s dad and both of his grandfathers were in the military, and he felt compelled to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s one of those things,” Smith said. “I felt like I could live up to their (service) and make them proud and take care of the people that I love.”
Smith joined the United States Marine Corps in 2006 and served for four years until 2010, when injuries made it impossible to continue serving.
“(Operation Song) is very emotional for me,” Smith said. “Not just for my immediate family, but for the family that you have when you join the military. Talking about those experiences is very emotional but very worthwhile.”
The song, titled “Boots,” focuses on Smith’s military relationships and the relationship Smith had with his father and grandfather. Smith stated that, after he served in the military, he created a new bond with his father. Many of the song’s lyrics play off the idea that, as he followed his dad and grandfather into the service, he was figuratively walking in their boots.
“My dad wasn’t mean, but he was hard,” Smith said. “He was a good man. I want to live up to that. I’m named after him and my granddaddy. I want to live up to that, and one way to think about that is to walk in their boots.”
Crosby stated that, upon hearing the experiences that Smith shared, it was simple to create a meaningful piece of music.
“It moved me to hear Trey describe his relationship with his dad and some of the relationships he had in the service, friends that were wounded and friends that he lost,” Crosby said. “We tried to take his emotions and weave them into the song. So, it wasn’t just words and rhyme but had some real substance to it.”
The trio agreed that Operation Song allowed them all to creatively and emotionally thrive.
“It’s been very educational and humbling to be a part of Operation Song, as well as being able to tell a story that means something,” Holley said.
“I think for veterans, it’s a vehicle to help them cope with certain problems they may have,” Smith said. “A lot of us are like, ‘Let’s blow it up.’ We don’t cope well. But this is one way to help work those emotions and not to drown them.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Huber, who is now the MTSU senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives, was in one of the songwriting trios at the retreat.
“I think it’s an incredible magic to draw together people to tell a story,” Huber said. “Whether they are good or bad, (veterans) are hesitant to talk about (their experiences) because they don’t know if there is a commonality of context. (Operation Song) gives them an opportunity to talk about their experiences in a non-threatening, non-critical environment and to see a song come from that. To see them be absorbed and connected to the music is really a great experience.”
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