Leland the service dog seemed unimpressed with his time in the spotlight in Middle Tennessee State University‘s Keathley University Center Theater.
His adoring new audience of roughly three dozen humans, however, applauded like his new album had just gone No. 1 on all the streaming services.
Leland’s person, senior industrial/organizational psychology major Stefanie Marvin-Miller of Murfreesboro, was proud of and thankful for her canine buddy, too, so she wrote a song about him — “Woman’s Best Friend” — with the help of fellow student Paul Mathews, a senior commercial songwriting major from Sherwood, Arkansas, and award-winning Nashville songwriter Adam Hood.
The now-5-year-old Labrador retriever’s been at Marvin-Miller’s side since the summer of 2018, helping her manage the severe post-traumatic stress disorder she lives with after she was sexually assaulted and survived a traumatic brain injury in 2016 while in the Army National Guard.
“Getting to hang out with Adam was awesome, but meeting another MTSU student, who I can see on campus and who I’m actually going to get to see graduate at the same time as me next spring, is amazing,” Marvin-Miller said.
“To work on the song and sit in that room for most of the day was an amazing process, and I can’t thank Operation Song enough.”
Marvin-Miller re-enrolled at MTSU in 2020, making use of the myriad services that the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center offers student veterans.
One of the services it offers, since 2016, has been the annual Operation Song daylong writing session on campus. The event connects veterans with fellow students, who are majoring in advanced commercial songwriting in the Department of Recording Industry, and the Nashville pro writers who volunteer with Operation Song.
Operation Song, established in 2012 by Nashville songwriters, helps retired and active-duty veterans and their families sort out experiences and emotions by sitting down and telling their stories, which the musicians help turn into tunes.
The organization first offered weekly programs for veterans at Murfreesboro’s Alvin C. York Medical Center and now offers more local programs, including songwriting sessions in Nashville, Clarksville, Chattanooga and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, along with retreats around the country.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, which has worked closely with Operation Song, contacted Odie Blackmon, director of MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting Program in the Department of Recording Industry, in 2016 about a possible project with the university. The Daniels Center stepped up to find local veterans to join the session.
As in in past years, this fall’s five veterans from across campus found an opportunity to tell difficult stories they’d only shared with fellow soldiers, or perhaps counselors, or partners. The results have often been musical remembrances of fallen comrades, stories of struggling with civilian life and other somber recollections of the hardships of military life, in and out of uniform.
At this 2021 retreat, however, the tone was different. Perhaps the pandemic, which canceled the 2020 Operation Song session, provided fresh perspectives, but the tunes performed together at the day’s end were more buoyant, encompassing gratitude, acceptance, reflection, pride in accomplishments — and in surviving.
“This has been such an amazing experience and opportunity,” said Adara Finnerty, a senior commercial songwriting major from Lone Grove, Oklahoma, who wrote with freshman Danette Murphy of Clarksville, a veteran and professional pilot major, and singer-songwriter Kelli Johnson, best known for her “Somebody in Alabama Loves You” and “Over My Head.”
“I didn’t know what to expect but honestly, I’m so glad I came in so blind, because it was a different perspective that I didn’t know I needed,” Finnerty continued, still beaming after co-writing “This Is Why I’m Here,” Murphy’s story of wrangling life as a soldier and a military wife.
“It was so amazing to hear your story and to meet you both.”
The 2021 songwriting trios also included:
• Student veteran Jeremy Barker, a freshman aerospace major from Murfreesboro; student songwriter Sarah Sexton, a senior from Smyrna, Tennessee; and Regie Hamm, a four-time SESAC Songwriter of the Year who served as emcee for the ending showcase and performed the three’s “Late to the Party.”
• Student veteran Tim Gassman, an accounting graduate student from Murfreesboro, and student songwriter Sophia McCarthy, a senior from Lafayette, Louisiana, who teamed up with Hall of Fame songwriter Byron Hill for “When You Get Home.”
• Student veteran Keith Prather of Smyrna, who’s working toward his master’s degree in social work, and student songwriter Alli Carruth, a junior from Trussville, Alabama, who wrote with Grammy-nominated keyboardist and songwriter Joseph Wooten on the rollicking “Grown Up in the Funk.”
“We just hit it off; I don’t know what happened, but some kind of magic came into the room,” said Hill, echoing his colleagues’ remarks on each of the new songs.
“Timothy’s story and what he wanted to get across in this song … I think we nailed it. It was a true collaboration, let me tell you.”
Blackmon, an MTSU recording industry alumnus and himself an award-winning songwriter, said the sessions provide practical experience for his students and plenty more.
“Not only are they learning from Hall of Fame songwriters, they’re learning something about people who gave so much to all of us,” he said. “They’re learning about compassion. There’s a lot of ‘life stuff’ in there, above and beyond songwriting. I’m glad that they (Operation Song) wanted us to be a part of it.”
“I think Operation Song provides so many gifts that they don’t even know how much they’re doing,” added Hilary Miller, director of the Daniels Center.
“It is such an amazing thing; it’s a treasure, a secret treasure, because people don’t know all the ways that it impacts them long beyond that day.”
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)