There’s a lot to be said for music: It can be entertaining; it can immediately transport listeners back to a specific time and place.
Music can also be used to heal.
On Sunday, Soldier Songs and Voices will offer free music lessons and a songwriting workshop for Durango-area veterans at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031, 1550 Main Ave. There will also be a performance Sunday night by Soldier Songs’ founder and musician Dustin Welch and his father (and the organziation’s vice president) Kevin Welch, also a professional musician.
Soldier Songs and Voices was founded by Dustin Welch in 2011 in Austin, Texas. The organization has since grown to be nationwide, with chapters in Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas. There’s also a chapter that was launched in 2016 in Australia.
“We are very aware of the sacrifices our defense men and women have made and continue to make for their country, so we wanted a way to give back and show our gratitude,” the organization’s website says. “The workshops are a place for like-minded people to come together, have some fun and learn some new skills. Our goal is to create long-lasting change through songwriting and music in the lives of active duty and prior service veterans and their families.”
Welch said Soldier Songs grew out of a compilation album by Texas artists called “Voices of a Grateful Nation” released by the Welcome Home Project in 2008. Welch would play shows in support of the album, and when he would play, veterans would speak to him after the shows.
“I kept meeting these vets that would come up and be like, ‘Wow, that song had such an impact on me and I’ve always wanted to learn how to write a song or play an instrument,’” Welch said. “After hearing that sentiment over and over and over, I just finally went, ‘Gosh, we could just do this; we could just make that happen.’ So I put together a series of benefit gigs and bought a bunch of guitars.”
He said he wanted to do the workshops at music venues because it’s a more neutral territory, even though programs are offered in some VFWs and Legion halls.
“Just from the onset, I started thinking a music venue, somewhere that’s more of like a social environment – so many folks that are dealing with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, they tend to isolate themselves,” Welch said. “I thought we should do these in music venues – somewhere they could see: ‘All right, there’s the stage, and you’re going to be playing up there at some point.’ You can see it, there it is, what are you going to be talking about when you get up there?’”
Welch said what was fascinating was that pretty quickly through the workshops, they found that music has such a healing quality to it on a neurological level.
“We began discovering that folks were getting their cognitive abilities back all of a sudden. They could remember what they were doing last week or even the day before. And they were like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t have to go back in the house five different times every time I’m trying to leave the house because I forgot something,’” he said. “Their therapists were going, ‘I don’t know what you’re up to, but keep it up because something’s happening.’”
It was at this point Welch knew the group was on to something.
“I started researching everything I could get my hands on about that kind of neurology, how music works in the brain. There hasn’t been a whole lot of studies on this, but it’s finally kind of catching up,” he said.
Soldier Songs and Voices is funded through benefit shows, donations or the rare grant, Welch said, a challenge to be sure. But what people get from the program can be invaluable, both for service members and for Welch, too.
“It’s allowed me to meet some of the most remarkable people I never would have had the opportunity to be around otherwise,” he said. “It really changed the way I thought about what it means to serve your country. I didn’t sign up myself, but this is what I know how to do, so this is how I choose to share what I can help with.”
For veterans and active-duty personnel, Sunday’s event is wide open. There are no requirements – participants don’t have to know how to write a song or play an instrument, Welch said.
He said he hopes this will plant the seeds for a chapter in Durango. Most of the Soldier Songs groups meet weekly, every other week or once a month.
“What I’m looking for are local musicians and maybe a local veteran coordinator that has access to the veterans community, just to be able to get the word out,” he said. “At that point, then I’ll set them up with some guitars.
“It’s such an organic process; that’s kind of the beauty of it. And it requires so little,” Welch said.