Singer, songwriter and all-around Texas troubadour Darden Smith has been writing songs for most of his life. It began while he was growing up in the countryside near Brenham, Texas, but he hit his musical stride while attending the University of Texas, where he became engrossed in the Austin music scene.
Since the release of Native Soil, his 1986 debut album, Smith has enjoyed a long career, performing across Texas, the United States and the world. He recently released his latest album, Love Calling (Compass Records), and on Friday, September 6, he performs at KUTX Live at the Stateside Theatre.
For any musician in any genre — Texas country or otherwise — a career like the one Smith continues to enjoy would be plenty. But for the past several years, he has turned his focus to helping others express their own voices through music.
“Songwriting can help someone who’s had a really bad experience,” Smith says. “It sort of takes that experience off of your shoulders a little bit.”
It began in 2003, when he founded the Be an Artist Program as a way to engage young children verbally and encourage them to seek out their own creativity. Then in 2012, he launched SongwritingWith:, a series of programs composed simply of Smith, his guitar and a group of people willing to talk — or rather sing — about their experiences.
“I had already seen how songwriting can help someone who’s had a really bad experience; you write a song about it, and it sort of takes that experience off of your shoulders a little bit,” Smith says.
“That’s how SongwritingWith: Soldiers began — using songwriting as a way to get someone to tell their story.”
In addition to SongwritingWith:Covenant House, a program where Smith and other volunteers work with formerly homeless youth at a Newark, New Jersey shelter, he launched SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a program and retreat service that helps veterans overcome trauma and other remnants of war through songwriting sessions.
According to Smith, it’s not difficult to get soldier to open up about his experiences during the sessions. “The trick to SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and with all of these programs, is listening,” he says.
“We sit down with someone. We’re not there to heal anybody, and we’re not therapists. We’re just songwriters. It begins with a conversation. It begins with a connection. Everybody’s got a story to tell.”
One of those stories is from A.J. Merrifield, who served multiple tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army before returning to civilian life in August 2013. Merrifield found out about SongwritingWith:Soldiers through the veteran-support organization Team Red, White & Blue.
“It was an amazing experience all across,” Merrifield says. “One of the hard things with serving and returning is how you relate your experiences to those around you.”
Merrifield also notes how hard it can be now for veterans to connect with others. Many soldiers come from rural areas, and the size of the combat veteran population varies from region to region.
“The hard thing becomes, how do you communicate those experiences?" he says. "How do you communicate what combat is like, what it’s like to see somebody die close up?
“I think the amazing thing through the whole [SongwritingWith] experience was watching how people … were able to take those experiences we have and turn them into a [message] that conveys not just thoughts about what we’re trying to say, but, surprisingly, also the feelings."
For Merrifield, there was a built-in trust among fellow veterans, which made for a supportive event. In the end, songwriting helped Merrifield communicate with friends and family outside of the retreat group.
“I was surprised and pleasantly amazed at how well we were able to convey those feelings and those thoughts through the music that we wrote," he says.
Merrifield has continued to explore ways to convey experience through art, creating his own comic series, BOB on the FOB, and even volunteering for upcoming sessions of SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
For Smith, it’s another way to share the power of songwriting. “I remember this great Butch Hancock quote where he says, ‘There’s a hundred photographs around you at any time. It’s all in which one you want to take and whether or not you have a camera.’
“And that’s really, to me, the way that songwriting is — are you able to write a song at that moment?”