Friday’s Operation Song benefit pairs musicians, veterans
Trinity Lutheran Church in Tullahoma will open the doors of its A-frame parish hall Friday night to share through song the stories only veterans, with the help of professional songwriters, can tell.
The songs are the result of a Nashville-based music therapy program called Operation Song, a nonprofit effort founded five years ago by accomplished Nashville songwriter Bob Regan (“Your Everything,” “Thinkin’ About You”).
Regan moved to Nashville to get into the songwriting business in 1985 but, he said, “I’ve been in the music business my whole life.” As an active musician, Regan had the opportunity in the 2000s to perform on Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE) tours around the country, as well as in Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
On those tours, he said, he could see the toll that repeated deployments had taken on the troops and he wanted to do more to help. He also noticed something.
“Every time the guitar comes out, everybody’s drawn to it,” he said. That started Regan thinking.
“My idea was that songwriters are armchair therapists – we tell each other our stories and we try to make them make sense,” he said. Maybe, he thought, the same process “might work with all these military members who were undergoing repeated deployments and any number of service-related issues and injuries.”
To find out, Regan made a cold call in 2012 to the Alvin C. York VA Hospital in Murfreesboro and pitched the idea. “They said ‘let’s give it a shot,’” Regan said, and that was the beginning of Operation Song.
Regan founded Operation Song with fellow Nashville songwriter Don Goodman (“Ol’ Red,” “Angels Among Us”). Together, they began pairing hit Nashville songwriters with retired and active duty service members, empowering them to tell their stories and, with a certified music therapist, work through the emotions related to their service – “making sense” of their experiences through the process of songwriting.
Regan, past president of the Nashville Songwriters Association, said that even as the program has expanded into neighboring states, most of the writers who have participated in the program so far have been Nashville-based. That’s a product of his relationship with these songwriters, he said: he knows first-hand which writers are most likely to “check their egos at the door,” listen well and write the best songs they can while staying true to the veterans’ stories.
To date, roughly 50 Nashville songwriters have participated in the program.
“The songwriters are top tier and therefore the songs that come out of the program are by and large very, very good and some of them are truly exceptional,” said Regan.
The veterans who participate don’t have to have a musical background; that’s what the writers bring to the process. What veterans bring are their stories and their willingness to share them.
As a form of therapy, it has struck a chord. Time and time again, Regan and his team are told that the program has provided the most therapeutic experience that many graduates of the 8- to 10-week program have ever had. “This is therapy on steroids,” said a Vietnam veteran identified only as “Joe” on the Operation Song website. A Navy veteran called “Jimmy” said, “Songwriting has done more for me in two months than the shrink did in two years.”
The program directly addresses a problem of national significance. Every day, 20 former servicemen and women commit suicide. That’s one self-imposed veteran death every 72 minutes. And, according to the Veterans Administration, as many as 15 out of every 100 veterans experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year.
The process of songwriting helps. Veterans lay out what Regan calls the jumbled “puzzle pieces” of their experiences for trained songwriters to organize into a cohesive narrative – a narrative that they help to write and a narrative that, by the nature of song, has a resolution.
Regan said that most veterans come to the program via referrals from the Veterans Administration, “but if people reach out to us and say ‘hey, I’m in the area, how do I get involved,’ we’ll try to find a program that suits their needs.”
There is also a contact form on the program’s website.
Featured songs are posted on the website as well, and many more can be heard on the social media sound platform, SoundCloud, or on the Operation Song YouTube Channel. Additionally, the program’s latest CD, “We’ve Got Your Six,” is now available on iTunes, iTunes Music and Spotify.
Meetings and Retreats
In addition to the Friday night Murfreesboro program, Operation Song now conducts weekly programs in Nashville, Clarksville and Chattanooga. The organization also hosts frequent retreats across the Southeast.
Through these expansions, the program has grown not only geographically but also in regard to the people it serves. Many retreats address the experiences of spouses and caregivers, of Gold Star widows and children and of survivors of Military Sexual Assault (MSA).
“It’s a lot of programming,” said Regan. “We’ve written over 500 – approaching 600 songs – in the last five years.”
And the program is still growing. Operation Song is currently in the process of developing pilot programs in Atlanta, Georgia; Little Rock, Arkansas, Biloxi, Mississippi and Pensacola, Florida.
“This is my retirement gig,” said Regan. “I didn’t intend for it to expand like it did, but it works, so we’re going with it.”
Though he now works full time with the nonprofit organization, Regan takes no compensation for his work; but he does compensate the professional songwriters who work with the program.
“If all I did was call in favors, I would have hit a wall,” he said. “I don’t pay them anywhere near what they are worth, but I do have to compensate writers who will make a commitment to undertake a program once a week in Chattanooga or once a week in Ft. Campbell.”
To raise the needed funds, Regan and members of his team perform the songs they’ve written – inviting the veteran songwriters to join them – at fundraising events like the one coming to Trinity Lutheran on Friday.
Fundraising at Trinity
Regan said he met Trinity Lutheran’s pastor, the Rev. Alex Hoffner, when Operation Song performed a songwriter’s night at a Lutheran church in Lebanon. That meeting lead to an invitation to bring the program to Tullahoma.
“He’s very organized and doing a lot more than a lot of other people do,” Regan said of Hoffner. “I’m anxious to go down there and see their facility. I think it’s going to be a very good night.”
Grammy winning songwriter Lynn Langham (“Old Yellow Moon”) and Doug Gill (“I Just Come Here for the Music”) will be joining Regan and Goodman in Tullahoma on Friday.
All four songwriters have been nominated for Grammy Awards.
Regan, also nominated for Gospel music’s Dove Award, has more than 200 recorded songs and 11 ASCAP Most Performed Song awards. Goodman, a multi-platinum artist, is listed in the Billboard top 100 all-time country songwriters with songs like “Dixie Road” and “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands.”
Collectively, they have written for artists such as Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Luke Brian, Reba McIntire, Jake Owen and Lee Greenwood.
“We’re going to have some local veterans come by – and also from Nashville that night – and tell their stories and we’re going to sing their songs,” Regan said. “That’s the really compelling part of these events – it’s the veterans who really wrote these songs.”
“I’m hoping it will be sold out and then some so that no one can get in, not even us.” he joked.
The Friday night fundraiser will begin at 6 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 705 Wilson Ave.
Tickets to the event are $25 and must be purchased in advance. The price includes dinner, drinks, entertainment and childcare.
To purchase tickets, contact the church office at 455-9475 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelly Lapcznski may be reached by email at email@example.com.