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Operation Song helps MTSU veterans, budding songwr...

Operation Song helps MTSU veterans, budding songwriters, Nashville pros ‘craft something amazing’

MTSU commercial songwriting major Katherine

Once, or maybe several times, they were in the room where it happened. Perhaps it was a courtyard instead, or a street, or a playground, or a shop, or a parking lot, years ago.

Some of them haven’t left that room, or that playground, or that street, until a couple of weeks before Veterans Day, when they went into another room, this time with two smiling strangers, talking of music and telling stories … and the door finally opened.

Operation Song logo

Middle Tennessee State University’s collaboration with Operation Song and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, which began in 2016, recently brought together another group of military veterans whose stories need — and deserve — to be told, again with the help of professional songwriters and students in MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting Program.

Seven trios sat down together again for a day, talking about families, friends, work and faith, joking through awkward moments and waiting quietly for sudden tears, provoked by a random thought, to dry.

“It’s hard to think, in the morning, whether you even have a story to tell, and at the end of the day you think, ‘Wow, this is a song? That we’re going to perform?!?’” Operation Song Executive Director Mike Byer said with a chuckle during the “grand finale” performances in the Keathley University Center.

“You have these thoughts that you’ve shared from your story, and these folks help you craft your story into a new version that’s something … well, amazing. Every one of y’all today should be proud.”

MTSU student veteran Jay Magruder of Murfreesboro, left, a senior majoring in unmanned aircraft systems operations, makes a point about "Honor Guard," a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Laughing and looking on before they perform the song in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 are his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Jaren Logan from Memphis, center, and professional songwriter Mark Irwin, a returning MTSU participant and songwriter for artists including Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU student veteran Jay Magruder of Murfreesboro, left, a senior majoring in unmanned aircraft systems operations, makes a point about “Honor Guard,” a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Laughing and looking on before they perform the song in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 are his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Jaren Logan from Memphis, center, and professional songwriter Mark Irwin, a returning MTSU participant and songwriter for artists including Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. MTSU’s Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

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.

Daniels Veterans Center logo

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.

John Duncan, an MTSU history alumnus and Rutherford County teacher who’s working toward his master’s degree in educational leadership, explained the origins of his song “Face My Fear,” a story peeling back the origins of his physical and emotional cautiousness and how he’s worked to overcome it.

The longtime musician’s help came from his new friends, Nashville commercial songwriting student Jake Morgan and veteran songwriter Steve Williams, whose work includes cuts by Craig Morgan and George Strait.

Commercial Songwriting Program logo web

More than military veterans can identify with their lyrics’ multiple meanings: “I used to wear a suit of armor just in case I’m attacked / ’cause you never know when someone’s gonna stab you in the back.”

“I come from a military family but never planned on going into the military myself,” said Duncan, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. “I often talked about the experience of how it (military life) affected my family and my parents, and then I wound up doing it. I kinda charged ahead with it, but it forged me into who I am today.”

MTSU commercial songwriting major Katherine "Katt" Grimes, center, a senior and native of Lithia, Florida, who now lives in Murfreesboro, harmonizes with Kaitlyn Kilian, an Oklahoma songwriter, on "Roots," a song they co-wrote with student veteran Jeremy Barker, a Murfreesboro junior majoring in unmanned aircraft systems operations, who's listening in the background during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. The trio was one of seven who created and performed new songs in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU commercial songwriting major Katherine “Katt” Grimes, center, a senior and native of Lithia, Florida, who now lives in Murfreesboro, harmonizes with Kaitlyn Kilian, an Oklahoma songwriter, on “Roots,” a song they co-wrote with student veteran Jeremy Barker, a Murfreesboro junior majoring in unmanned aircraft systems operations, who’s listening in the background during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. The trio was one of seven who created and performed new songs in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

‘All these guys are awesome’

The music-focused student writers, all senior commercial songwriting majors, will receive credit for their songwriting practicum course, another in the program’s series of experiential learning classes that allow them to work with music industry mentors and co-write with pros.

“I had a great time writing this song,” Katherine “Katt” Grimes, a native of Lithia, Florida, who now lives in Murfreesboro, said succinctly as her peers nodded in agreement.

“All these guys are awesome.”

Grimes wrote “Roots” with Jeremy Barker, a Murfreesboro junior majoring in unmanned aircraft systems operations, and Kaitlyn Kilian, an Oklahoma songwriter new to MTSU this year. Barker’s participation in the 2021 Operation Song event told the story of all the near-misses in his life, and the one that connected, in “Late to the Party.”

MTSU student veteran Jason Mettert of Murfreesboro, left, a senior human geography major, offers the audience some background information about "Jump 64," a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Looking on before they perform the song in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 are his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Patrick "PC" Strickland from Hoover, Alabama, and Grammy nominee Billy Montana, who’s written for Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans and Garth Brooks and helped guide the gentle twists of Mettert’s story. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU student veteran Jason Mettert of Murfreesboro, left, a senior human geography major, offers the audience some background information about “Jump 64,” a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Looking on before they perform the song in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 are his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Patrick “PC” Strickland from Hoover, Alabama, and Grammy nominee Billy Montana, who’s written for Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans and Garth Brooks and helped guide the gentle twists of Mettert’s story. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

This year, the “near-miss” made it in time again, after Barker asked his fellow students and the songwriters if his trio’s performance could be delayed until his wife, biostatistics graduate student Megan Roberts, arrived to hear the song.

They happily complied, with plenty of teasing, by taking group photographs and telling stories until Rogers rushed into the theater, all smiles, to thunderous applause from the small but vocal crowd.

The 2022 songwriting trios also included:

• Student veteran Jay Magruder, a senior UAS major from Murfreesboro; student songwriter Jaren Logan from Memphis; and pro Mark Irwin, a returnee and writer for artists including Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw, who together wrote a tribute to the nation’s “Honor Guard,” in which Magruder served.

• Student veteran Jason Mettert of Murfreesboro, a senior human geography major; student songwriter Patrick “PC” Strickland from Hoover, Alabama; and Grammy nominee Billy Montana, who’s written for Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans and Garth Brooks and helped guide the gentle twists of Mettert’s story into “Jump 64.”

• Student veteran Karly Stevens of Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee, a freshman horse science major; student songwriter Emily O’Neal, a native of Starke, Florida, who now lives in Murfreesboro; and Grammy nominee and multiple returnee Jamie Floyd, who teamed up to tell Stevens’ poignant story of “Something I Love More.”

MTSU student veteran Bennie Thompson Sr. of Fayetteville, Tennessee, a junior majoring in concrete industry management major, explains what went into "Sand and Smoke," a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Looking on before they perform the song in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 is one of his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Ryan Haynes of Sterrett, Alabama. Professional songwriter David Kent, who isn't shown, was the third member of the trio, whose partnership stunned the audience with the song's changing visions of home and war. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU student veteran Bennie Thompson Sr. of Fayetteville, Tennessee, a junior majoring in concrete industry management major, explains what went into “Sand and Smoke,” a song composed from discussing his military service during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Looking on before they perform the song in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater Oct. 28 is one of his co-writers, senior commercial songwriting major Ryan Haynes of Sterrett, Alabama. Professional songwriter David Kent, who isn’t shown, was the third member of the trio. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

• Student veteran Bennie Thompson Sr. of Fayetteville, Tennessee, a junior concrete industry management major; student songwriter Ryan Haynes of Sterrett, Alabama; and pro songwriter David Kent, whose partnership stunned the audience with the changing visions of home and war in “Sand and Smoke.”

• Student veteran Ed Watkins, a junior audio production major and newcomer from Charlotte, North Carolina; student songwriter Trent Roeder of Rogers, Arkansas; and pro writer and recording industry alumnus David Kent, who turned what Watkins thought were frustrating experiences into learning opportunities in “See the World.”

Operation Song is celebrating its 10th anniversary Monday, Dec. 5, with a special three-hour music showcase at the Franklin Theatre, 400 Main St. in Franklin, Tennessee. For more information about that event and about Operation Song, visit www.operationsong.org.

For more information on the Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at MTSU, visit www.mtsu.edu/military.

For details on MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting Program in the College of Media and Entertainment, visit www.mtsu.edu/programs/commercial-songwriting.

— Gina E. Fann (gina.fann@mtsu.edu)

Grammy-nominated songwriter Jamie Floyd, left, explains how she and MTSU student Emily O'Neal, right, a native of Starke, Florida, and senior commercial songwriting major who now lives in Murfreesboro, co-wrote a new song, “Something I Love More," with student veteran Karly Stevens of Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee, during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Stevens, a freshman horse science major who served in the U.S. Navy, was unable to join her new colleagues and six other writing trios to perform their songs in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted Operation Song since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
Grammy-nominated songwriter Jamie Floyd, left, explains how she and MTSU student Emily O’Neal, right, a native of Starke, Florida, and senior commercial songwriting major who now lives in Murfreesboro, co-wrote a new song, “Something I Love More,” with student veteran Karly Stevens of Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee, during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Stevens, a freshman horse science major who served in the U.S. Navy, was unable to join her new colleagues and six other writing trios to perform their songs in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. MTSU’s Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted Operation Song since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
Songwriter and MTSU recording industry alumnus Jason Duke, foreground, concentrates on singing “See the World,” a song about turning frustrating experiences into learning opportunities, as student veteran Ed Watkins, a junior audio production major and newcomer from Charlotte, North Carolina, whose perspective shaped the song, listens in the background during the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Senior commercial songwriting major Trent Roeder of Rogers, Arkansas, is shown in the center playing guitar. The trio was one of seven who created and performed new songs in MTSU's Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted Operation Song since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
Songwriter and MTSU recording industry alumnus Jason Duke, foreground, concentrates on singing “See the World,” a song about turning frustrating experiences into learning opportunities, as student veteran Ed Watkins, a junior audio production major and newcomer from Charlotte, North Carolina, whose perspective shaped the song, listens in the background during the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Senior commercial songwriting major Trent Roeder of Rogers, Arkansas, is shown in the center playing guitar. The trio was one of seven who created and performed new songs in MTSU’s Keathley University Center Theater at the Oct. 28 event. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU student veterans and student songwriters gather for a group photo with professional songwriters from Nashville in the Keathley University Center Theater at the close of the annual Operation Song writers' retreat at the university. Operation Song Executive Director Mike Byer is kneeling at center front with the wooden U.S. flag and organization and military branch logos. Seven trios, comprising a veteran, a student writer and a pro, spent the day turning the veterans' stories into music to share. MTSU's Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)
MTSU student veterans and student songwriters gather for a group photo with professional songwriters from Nashville in the Keathley University Center Theater at the close of the annual Operation Song writers’ retreat at the university. Operation Song Executive Director Mike Byer is kneeling at center front with the wooden U.S. flag and organization and military branch logos. Seven trios, comprising a veteran, a student writer and a pro, spent the day turning the veterans’ stories into music to share. MTSU’s Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center and the Commercial Songwriting Program have hosted the event since 2016. (MTSU photo by Cat Curtis Murphy)

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