Mary Gauthier's 'Rifles and Rosary Beads' Is Modern Folk Music at Its Best

The songwriter paired with veterans to write the music for her latest album, and not even she could've predicted the powerful result.

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Jan 26 2018, 6:00pm

When Mary Gauthier decided to use her role as a folk musician to elevate the voices of the frequently unheard on her latest album Rifles and Rosary Beads, she did nothing more than take advantage of a centuries-old tradition. Working with veterans for her latest record—her overall 11th record, 8th studio record, and first not to focus specifically on her lived experience— is nothing short of a folk music mission statement, and by using her platform she achieves what so many who tout themselves and musicians and activists strive to do: She hands over the reins to those who need them most, in a way that prioritizes their longevity.

“What saves you in the battle / Can kill you at home,” sings Gauthier on “Soldering On,” mixing electric guitar and fiddle harmonies to create a sound that modernizes folk music while paying tribute to its history. This is how the 55-year-old folk singer opens her latest album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, a collaboration with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a nonprofit that helps veterans process and relate their war experience through songwriting. In 2012, after visiting a US military hospital in Germany, songwriter Darden Smith decided he wanted to do something for those veterans struggling after being reintroduced back to civilian life. So he founded SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a yearly retreat for former members of any branch of the military to work out their trauma through songwriting. While this might sound like a specifically country music kind of crowd to some—it leans heavily on acoustic guitar and Gauthiers southernish accent—this kind of songwriting falls right in line with the folk tradition. The lyric is a nod to the way military training is rarely reversed, or how the brain is not properly “deprogrammed” when soldiers return home, leading to a number of veterans finding it difficult to adapt to civilian life.

It’s not exactly a secret that the United States needs to do more for its veterans when it comes to mental health. As of 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that suicide claims the lives of roughly 22 veterans per day, according to a study published by the DVA in 2016. According to Wounded Warriors, a nonprofit that works to help veterans after returning from tours of duty, one in five return with PTSD. In a thread posted to /r/askreddit several days ago with the title [Serious] USA military veterans of Reddit who now hate the military, what made you change your mind?, multiple veterans of the American military responded with their stories of mismanagement and abuse at the hands of their superiors. “I honestly think we can never be ‘normal’ again,” wrote one user, citing the way the military trains its members to think in a combat situation, only to experience a complete 180 when they return to civilian life. “It's After war where we arent [sic] trained and dont [sic] have an outlet for the adrenalin [sic] and the only focus is the pain and fear and guilt and sleeplessness that makes it last decades. Decades,” wrote another user in another thread, this time asking “[Serious] Veterans of Reddit, what is war really like?

Gauthier’s story is its own kind of folk song. Born in New Orleans, she was left at St. Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum as a child, was adopted, but ran away at the age of 15 and spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She got sober in 1990, released her first album Dixie Kitchen in 1997 (named after the Cajun restaurant she opened in Boston) and has been writing songs and short stories ever since. On January 26, she’ll release Rifles and Rosary Beads, an album of 11 songs written by participants of S:WS and recorded with their permission. Gauthier has worked with S:WS for four and a half years, after Smith reached out and invited her to a workshop.

“I took to it immediately,” Gauthier said. “It’s like a light bulb screwing in for me. It was like ‘Oh my God! This is what I want to do.’”

More than just an album of rudimentary songs about the challenges of returning to civilian life, these songs portray a myriad of experiences. You won’t find any R&B-inspired beats on this album, which leans heavily on fiddle harmonies and acoustic guitars (with an occasional electric version). ”The War After the War,” a slow-moving, haunting fiddle tune, depicts life from the partner’s side of things: “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?/ There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor” the song pleads, imploring listeners to consider the work it takes to care for someone recovering from war, comparing the home to the battlefield.

Throughout the record, Gauthier is frequently accompanied by backing vocals reminiscent of a church choir. A visceral depiction of self-reckoning is found on “Rifles and Rosary Beads” (Mirrors frighten me / I don’t recognize what I see / A stranger with blood on his hands / Brother, I’m not that man), “Bullet Holes in the Sky” is a sad yet sassy retort to those of us who emptily salute veterans on Veterans Day (They thank me for my service and wave those little flags / They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back), while “Iraq,” one of two songs to explicitly deal with what it is to be a woman in the military.

“You felt like you weren’t alone,” Meghan Counihan, who co-wrote the solemn “Brothers” and darkly marching “Got Your Six,” told me on a snowy Thursday afternoon. “You were able to hear and share experiences among women that you don’t normally hear and share when there are men around. After that, I just wanted everyone to do it and to know there’s an outlet there. She [Gauthier] took something and turned it into something I couldn’t have possibly imagined. It’s very healing.”

“I realized that our veterans are hurting. They’re really hurting,” Gauthier said. “They have a story to tell. It’s complex, and it’s a story that really isn’t being told. I felt a real kindred connection with the veterans from the very first retreat. When you think of veterans you get this stereotype in your mind of who they are, and they’re so not that. They are a cross-section of humanity.”

There are two songs on the album that deal specifically with women’s experiences in the military. Despite being officially allowed to serve since 1948, the US military still doesn’t seem to know how to integrate women into everyday military life. One in four women and one in three men experienced sexual assault at the hand of someone in their chain of command, according to a report put out by the Department of Defense and condensed by Protect Our Defenders. Of those who spoke out, roughly 60 percent experienced some kind of retaliation for doing so, something that likely discourages future victims from speaking out. On “Iraq,” co-written by Mary Gauthier and Brandy Davidson, we’re given a first hand account of the day-to-day life of a woman in the military. “It was so hard to see it until it attacked but/ My enemy wasn’t Iraq” Gauthier sings in the chorus. “What I wouldn’t give them they’d try to take/ And when I refused them they made me pay.”

Less explosive but equally as concerning is Counihan’s “Brothers.” The song tells the story of Counihan’s deployment after the birth of her child. Because the military has few protections in place when it comes to helping current and future mothers, Counihan was deployed much too soon after giving birth—she was still lactating and soaked through a bra during her 23-hour flight. Once she arrived, she found her boots weren’t made for women’s feet, and they bruised hers, with blisters forming and popping and filling them with blood. And that’s just what’s in the song.

“They give me purpose. We live in such a fucked up, weird time, where it’s so easy to go ‘I just give up. There’s nothing I can done to fix this, it’s too broken.’” said Gauthier, who admits that as a gay, left-leaning artist, she didn’t think the kind of connection she ended up having with the veterans was possible.

Rifles and Rosary Beads ends with “Stronger Together,” a slow-marching ballad depicting the lived experiences of the partners of veterans, the ones left behind to wait for the soldiers’ return, that becomes a rallying cry of hope for those who feel so alone. “The military breaks their heart / We’re there when they fall apart / They’re hurt in places that the eye can’t see/ We’re stronger together/ Sisters forever.”

Annalise Domenighini is on Twitter.