The best songs are born out of personal experience — the more honest and intense, the more powerful. For much-acclaimed singer-songwriters Darden Smith, Radney Foster and Jay Clementi, that experience was connecting with returning soldiers, and working with them to turn their stories into songs that can help us all better understand the trauma and sacrifice of war. That collaboration will be the focus of a local 9/11 memorial concert called Faces of Freedom.
The concert has its roots in an emotional three-day retreat held some months ago in Colorado. It was there that the songwriters sought to discover the people beneath the uniforms and to tell their stories. They met with 10 returning veterans, and ended up turning their experiences into a dozen songs, many of which they'll be performing live at the World Arena on Sunday.
The program will also include the screening of a short documentary that reveals not only the soldiers' heroism, but also their humanity.
"It's a multimedia event that really tells the story of these lives, talks about 9/11, the number of returning veterans we have because of the wars we've been involved in the last 10 years, and what we as communities can do for them," says Foster. "It was incredibly cathartic for them and for us. It wasn't about trying to write hits, it was about trying to tell their story."
Nashville-based country-rocker Foster has long shown a knack for writing painfully honest songs that scrupulously avoid crossing the line into sentimentality or melodrama. Songs such as "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)," which he wrote after losing custody of a son, who'd moved to France with his mother. Or "Everyday Angel," about the efforts and sacrifices we make as refracted through the prism of 9/11, in which Foster sings, "I learned a big lesson that day / What you do means a whole lot more / Than anything you have to say."
It was "Angel Flight," a song about the planes carrying overseas military dead back to America that Foster co-wrote with Smith, that brought them into contact with LifeQuest Transitions. The Colorado Springs-based transitional assistance organization works with military personnel, helping them deal with issues related to their combat injuries and reintegrating into society. "Angel Flight" — whose proceeds go to a fund that supports returning Texas National Guardsmen and their families — had put Foster in touch with a number of veterans organizations. When he and Smith heard about LifeQuest's idea, they jumped at it, and invited Colorado native Jay Clementi to join them.
They spent the three-day retreat not only writing, but also taking part in physical activities like bicycling and fly fishing (Foster and Clementi are big anglers) to keep things from getting too intense. But given the power of these veterans' stories, those recreational outlets were no match for the emotional catharsis which characterized the songwriting process.
"It was physically and emotionally unbelievably intense — I cried every day," says Foster. "And the songs are just phenomenal. There are so many lines in them that are the kind of thing that, if you're a songwriter, people would say you just made it up. But it all really happened. You're sitting down with somebody and they don't know what they're doing or how to do it, but they do know how to tell their story. If you curb your tongue and listen long enough — they talk in lyrics, they just don't know they're doing it. In some sense you become a documentarian."
Snapshots of hell
The resulting songs range from "(War Is) Hell on My Heart," about a medic called to the site of a late-night midair helicopter collision, to "God Challenged Me," about a military photographer snapping the last moments of people's lives. Then there's "Predator Road," which details the hell suffered by three different veterans on one dangerous stretch of highway.
Ultimately, the performers and organizers hope that, if the Colorado Springs show goes over well, they'll be able to take it on the road for a couple weeks to other big military towns.
In the meantime, Foster's staying busy. He just got off the road with his buddy Bill Lloyd, the other half of late '80s hitmaking duo Foster & Lloyd, who are supporting their first new album in 21 years, It's Already Tomorrow. Foster's also getting ready to head back into the studio and record the follow-up to 2009's very rocking Revival, and he continues to do some production work for artists like Jack Ingram and Randy Rogers.
Meanwhile, he's just grateful for the experience of working with these veterans and for the highly evocative songs that came out of it.
"They all had amazing stories to tell," Foster says. "Hard times can make good music. It's a cliché, but it's true."