MTSU‘s partnership with Operation Song, now in its fourth year, continues to draw healing stories from military veterans and help train student songwriters with guidance from a Middle Tennessee circle of award-winning songsmiths.
Six trios teamed up for the day in campus offices Oct. 25 to craft music from memories that veterans say are nearly impossible to express. Grammy-winning writer Marcus Hummon, for example, worked with Teresa Carter, a U.S. Marine veteran and MTSU pre-med major, and songwriting senior Jody Chamberlain of Tucker, Georgia, to turn a life of challenges into a three-minute story of hope called “Wildflower Around Barbed Wire.”
“She was so gracious sharing her story, despite all the brokenness and all the tough times and really powerful witness. Teresa’s a survivor and resilient and strong, and she’s smiling, and to me, she’s just a light,” Hummon said, gazing at Carter with a smile.
Carter admitted that the day’s session, which ended with an informal 90-minute showcase of all the songs in a media classroom, “was a bit emotionally draining.”
“I thought the process was amazing to turn such a crazy time in my life into something a lot more poetic, a lot less ‘Lifetime video!'” she said with a laugh.
Her song, which mentions challenges as a woman serving in the Marine Corps, walking out on past domestic abuse, and juggling work, family and academic responsibilities, had the audience singing harmonies from the first chorus.
Sometimes you gotta pull the weeds out
To make your way to the light
I have to hold it together with steel
Because it’s gotta hurt sometimes to make it real
Life is a crucible forged in fire
And I am a wildflower wrapped around barbed wire.
Like all the creations from this year and previous “Songs and Stripes” events, the veterans’ songs are virtually radio-ready. That’s not surprising, since the creators make their living making music. Most are members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and some are veterans themselves.
The Hall of Fame, which works closely with Operation Song, first contacted MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting Program director Odie Blackmon in the Department of Recording Industry in 2016 about starting an event with the university. The university’s Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center helped contact and encourage local veterans’ participation, which has expanded to include military spouses, parents and even children to share service perspectives.
“This is amazing, really,” said Murfreesboro songwriter Ceron Mays, a first-time participant who worked with Navy veteran Mercy Kigen of Murfreesboro, a senior biochemistry major, and Will Harris of Jackson, Tennessee, a senior commercial songwriting major.
“Being a veteran (of the U.S. Army) myself and hearing all these people’s stories, I’ve been crying all day,” Mays continued with a choked laugh. “Will’s gonna have to sing this because there ain’t no way I can.”
Their collaboration, “Remember Memba,” chronicles Kigen’s brief journey with a child she said she can’t forget.
A Navy Seal deployed back to her native Kenya in 2017 with U.S. Africa Command, Kigen and her comrades found themselves helping civilians fleeing conflicts between terror groups and Kenyan and other African Union government troops. One was a girl named Memba in whose face Kigen, a former “Face of Kenya USA” cultural diplomat, recognized her own.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to share our stories. It’s a wonderful thing for Operation Song to do this,” Kigen said quietly. “Memba is 15 now, but she was 13 when I was deployed in Kenya. … I haven’t seen her since then, but I want to find her.”
I was meant to save you, but it was you who rescued me …
Hello, miss Memba, do you remember the soldier’s uniform they used to keep you warm?
Hello, miss Memba, do you remember? ‘Cause I cannot forget the child facing death.
Even the person recording this year’s performances is a veteran: Mike Byer of Clarksville, Tennessee, a retired first sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division who’s studying to be an audio engineer at the Apprentice Academy in Franklin, Tennessee.
Operation Song founder Bob Regan, who launched the nationally recognized effort in 2012 while working with veterans at Murfreesboro’s Alvin C. York VA Medical Center, said their goal isn’t to write the No. 1 hits they usually create in the renovated homes-turned-publishing houses along Music Row.
“I’m trying to help somebody tell their story and process something that they’ve been through, and that’s really a very valuable skill, as opposed to if you’re trying to run a country hit, you gotta have dogs and pickup trucks and tanned-leg Georgia girls,” Regan said.
“But in this songwriting iteration, the writers … all agree that this is a wonderful use of their talents, to be able to just say, ‘Let me help you make sense of something you’ve been through. Let me help you tell your story.’ That’s been a real benefit for me down the road, and that’s why I love it.”
This year’s songwriting trios, aided by a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, also included:
• Jennifer Hyde of Murfreesboro, an Army mom and executive aide for the dean of MTSU’s College of Education; student songwriter Abby Gibson, a senior from Roswell, Georgia; and Grammy-nominated songwriter Jamie Floyd, who shared a military parent’s perspective in “Camouflage.”
We still don’t know what he did, but we’re seeing what it did to him
He doesn’t say, and we don’t ask
But I don’t know when he’s coming back …
An Army mom can see through camouflage.
• Jessica Pierson of Murfreesboro, an Army veteran and MTSU alumna who works as transition manager for the Daniels Center; student Yui Hasegawa, a senior commercial songwriting major and native of Osaka, Japan; and No. 1-selling songwriter Steve Williams, who captured Pierson’s universal loss with “Distance.”
That old car of yours I gave to your best friend Brett
Your video games, your old clothes, a few more odds and ends
What’s it like up there, living on a cloud somewhere?
Is it everything you hoped it would be?
I’m hoping this letter can bridge the distance between you and me.
• Nate Tiuseco of Readyville, Tennessee, a retired Marine and MTSU sophomore photography major; senior songwriting major Faith Cotto of Murfreesboro; and No. 1-selling songwriter Rob Crosby, who teamed up for the devotion of “Superman.”
• Elizabeth Wilburn of Murfreesboro, an Army veteran and the Daniels Center’s office manager, who’s also a junior majoring in integrated studies; senior songwriting major Shamarra Chalk of Blytheville, Arkansas; and pro songwriter Pete Sallis, who collaborated on finding strength in survival in “I’m Still Here.”
I’m still here, I keep going on
I put one foot in front of the other
Behind this smile I still cry …
I survive in honor of all my brothers
I thought I’d waste away and disappear, but I’m still here.
Chamberlain, Chalk, Cotto, Gibson, Harris and Hasegawa also are enrolled in a songwriting practicum this semester, taught by Robert Jason, and meet each week in Nashville with songwriters and other industry pros to learn more about their craft and the business.
“I went into this knowing I was gonna have to share something but having no idea what,” said Tiuseco. “I started from the beginning, and … they kinda molded it into what my life is revolving around now.
“The song ended up not being about one person in particular but about several people in my life. These guys masterfully put it to where it’s very relatable. It’s definitely my story, yet it’s generic enough where just about anyone may have this person or these people in their lives.”
If I could be your superman, maybe then I’d be someone you’re proud of
If only I were 10 feet tall, then I might deserve your love
I wanna be the hero that you can look up to
Wanna keep you safe at night with my arms around you
That’s all I’ll ever need if I could ever be your superman.
For more information about Operation Song, including links to listen to and buy CDs from the sessions, visit www.operationsong.org. For more information on the Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at MTSU, visit www.mtsu.edu/military.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)