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Vol 106 / Issue 30

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PEOPLE MAKING A DIFFERENCE Darden Smith listens, strums his guitar, listens some more. Then he helps soldiers unburden themselves by writing a song. By David Conrads / Correspondent Belton, texas I t's a warm, clear morning just out- side Temple, Texas. Darden Smith sits down after breakfast with his guitar and his laptop, as he often does, to write a song. In a career that spans nearly 30 years, the native Texan and longtime Austin, Texas, resident has written and co-written innumerable songs, recorded 14 albums, and performed all over the world. This morning, Mr. Smith is collaborating with Marsha Cook, who has never written a song in her life. In fact, she neither sings nor plays a musical instrument. Smith and Ms. Cook make an unlikely songwriting team. But similar collaborations are happening this morning in the lodge and all around the grounds of the Cedarbrake Renewal Center in central Texas, where SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a nonprofit orga- nization Smith founded, is hosting a week- end-long retreat. The concept is simple: Pair military veter- ans and active-duty troops with professional songwriters in a tranquil setting. Then let the service members tell their stories while the songwriters mold those stories into lyr- ics and set them to music. The hope is that the songwriting will pro- vide a healthy emotional outlet for the ser- vice members, and the resulting songs will be a source of pride, a help to others facing similar challenges, and a bridge in the gap between military service and civilian life. Cook tells her story while Smith types some notes, strums his guitar, and asks questions. Mostly, he just listens. An Army veteran and homemaker, Cook spent decades as a military spouse, raising six children and dealing with a variety of mental and emotional challenges, many of them connected to war-related traumas suf- fered by her husband. As Cook talks, themes emerge from her experiences, and Smith begins shaping her words into lyrics. Georgia Middleman, a vet- eran of the Nashville music scene and one of the other four songwriters at the retreat, joins them. In about an hour, the three have crafted a sweet, catchy song in the classic country style of Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn. Cook beams as Smith plays "The Woman in Me" and Ms. Middleman sings its two verses and a bridge. "It's wonderful," Cook says when the two finish. "It really captures all the things I have been feeling all these years." "We all have a story," Smith says later. "When we listen, and listen well enough to take the soldiers' words and turn them into art, and sing it back to them, some- thing happens. What it is, I don't know. I'm a songwriter, not a therapist. But something happens, and it's powerful." I n t h e t w o y e a r s s i n c e f o u n d i n g SongwritingWith:Soldiers, nearly 100 sol - diers have participated in weekend retreats, as well as similar one- and two-day on-site sessions held at US Department of Veterans Affairs centers, military hospitals, and other locations. Several hundred songs have been written and recorded so that each participat- ing service member has something tangible stacy l. Pearsall/songWritingWith:soldiers Darden Smith (l.) works with Dustin Crites (c.) and Gary Nicholson in a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat in Belton, Texas. VNEXT PAGE 44 ThE ChRIsTIAN sCIENCE MoNIToR WEEKly | June 16, 2014

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