Mary Gauthier took an unusual approach in writing and recording her ninth studio album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, a collection of songs co-written with military veterans and their families and inspired by their experiences with war and combat. In fact, Gauthier doesn't really consider herself to be the writer of the songs on the project -- at least, she says, not in a traditional sense.

"I, Mary Gauthier, don't make an appearance at all in the story," she explained to The Boot in advance of the 2018 Americana Honors & Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. "I am sort of the midwife. I help them tell their story."

The first glimmers of Rifles and Rosary Beads grew out of a retreat several years ago, during which Gauthier was invited to partner with an organization called SongwritingWith:Soldiers to collaborate with those who had served in the military on musical projects. "The songwriters come in and bear witness," Gauthier says. "We just listen. As they talk, we pick up our instruments and start to find the melody that coincides with the emotion. Very quickly, we turn their story that they're telling us into a song."

As the 11-track project began to take shape, Gauthier enlisted the help of songwriter and performer Beth Nielsen Chapman, who explains the process of co-writing with veterans as more of a reformatting of the narratives, to allow the storytellers to see their stories in a new light. "These soldiers would tell us their stories, and it would take a few minutes for them to warm up to us," Chapman recalls. "They might not even realize that what they're saying is an amazing line. They don't even know that they're speaking in lyrics already."

Chapman remembers the first time she wrote a song with a veteran, and what a powerful impact it had on her: "I was writing with a young soldier, and he said something along the lines of that he came back from the war, and his wife said, 'You're not the the person that went to war. You're a different guy,'" she continues. "He said, 'I never really made it home.' So I was like, 'Oh, let me write that down.'

"And then the powerful thing that happens when they hear their own words sung back to them -- it's very emotional for them, and they do need to feel that emotion and release it," she adds. "You do feel like you're holding a space."

Gauthier agrees that co-writing with veterans is an emotional experience for both soldier and songwriter: "I don't know that I've co-written with a veteran yet where there wasn't tears," she admits. "It's very emotional. We've been at war for a very long time."

Gauthier goes on say that she learned plenty from her experience working with veterans on the album, both about their stories and about being grateful in her own life. "I have a really blessed and simple life compared to a soldier," she says. "They're told where to go and what they have to do. They don't get a vote yes or no ... So they've taught me the meaning of service. They've taught me the meaning of sacrifice. They've taught me just how much a war costs a person, a family.

"I didn't know any of that until I went into this work," she adds.

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