Like a bowl of cut onions
It's 7:12 p.m. You've got a soggy McDonalds cup sweating sweet tea in your cup holder. You're driving home after a long day, and the sun is dropping golden light on the horizon. Your sore right foot is pinning down the gas pedal. The fuzzy country FM radio station sharpens a bit, and you hear the beginning chords of a song you know every single syllable of. Maybe it reminds you of your brother overseas. Maybe it reminds you of your spouse's deployment. Maybe they're with you listening to it. Maybe they're not. Chances are, if you have any ties to military service, you've had one of these still car ride moments, and been caught off-guard by misty eyes and a head full of thoughts about our nation's heroes, while a solemn guitar and Southern twang underscore your drive home.
1. "If You're Reading This" Tim McGraw
This is about the letter many have written, and fewer have had to read. Tim McGraw sings, from the perspective of a soldier, writing a potential farewell letter. We don't know if the soldier comes home. All we know is he wrote it to his wife. Like so many others have done, and will continue to do. It's a testament to those who have been willing to make the sacrifice for those they love, as much as it is a testament to those loved ones who hopefully won't have to read. "So lay me down, in that open field out on the edge of town/ And know my soul, is always where my momma always prayed that it would be."
2. "Letters From Home" John Michael Montgomery
The first time you hear this song, it catches you by the throat in the third verse. John Michael Montgomery builds us in the walls of a world that feels gritty but perseverant in the first two verses. We hear of men finding gallows humor overseas. Then comes a letter from the old man... "But no one laughs, cause there ain't nothin funny when a soldier cries."
3. "If I Don't Make it Back" Tracy Lawrence
Tracy Lawrence paints the picture of a soldier talking to his buddies. These aren't necessarily family members, they feel somehow more intimate to the solider in the story. They share beer together, he jokes, and they laugh. He doesn't ever want to get his buddies down, he wants them to raise hell and drink and remember him with love, not with sadness. We can all remember a conversation over a couple dozen beers ending with the same altruistic, tough, sentiment. Plus—high school football. "On Friday night sit on the visitor side, and cheer for the home team."
4. "Travelin' Soldier" Dixie Chicks
This song was actually written and performed by Bruce Robison first. The song was then optioned and made famous by the Dixie Chicks. Although the Dixie Chicks politically polarized country music fans in 2003, the rendition of the song is unquestionably impactful. There is a vulnerable broken to its performance. The female vocals also lend another layer to the song, as the song is about a high school girl after all. "Our love will never end/ Waitin' for the soldier to come back again."
5. "Riding with Private Malone" David Ball
David Ball's tone feels a little bit lighter than the other songs on the list in "Riding with Private Malone." In that lightness though, there is deep feeling. The casual nature that he delivers the story of a soldier knowingly bestowing his ride to whoever picked it up next, shadows how selfless the act of service can be. It's discreet. It's quiet, it's between two people. It has gas pumping through it, and life, and it is passed down from generation to generation. "Though you may take her and make your own, you'll always be ridin' with Private Malone."
6. "I Drive Your Truck" Lee Brice
Lee Brice belts onto our list with the most recent entry into tearjerking country ballads. Here we find a brother left to find meaning and reason to his life after his brother makes the ultimate sacrifice. He connects with him by tearing up fields and peeling out in his old truck, blaring the same country station he left it on, highlighting the connective power of country music in the lives of people around the military. "People got their ways of coping, Oh and I've got mine/ I drive your truck."
7. "American Soldier" Toby Keith
One thing that has always struck me as disappointing in songs about soldiers is that the survivors get forgotten somewhere along the line. This ain't the case with Toby Keith's "American Soldier." It captures perfectly the duty that soldiers are responsible for. It brings to mind the simple, tough, resiliency of the military life, and it exalts those who answer its call. "And I can't call in sick on Mondays/ When the weekend's been too strong."
8. "Soldier's Last Letter" Merle Haggard
The late Merle Haggard knew his way around storytelling. A soldier telling his momma not to scold him for having shaky handwriting on a battlefield is a tragically human moment. We can guess how young the soldier is. We can guess how long he's been overseas. We can't guess how desperate his momma felt. It captured the feeling of an era, the generation of young boys lost in Vietnam, and the hole that was left back home in their wake. "Then the mother knelt down by her bedside/ And she prayed Lord above hear my plea/ And protect all the sons who are fighting tonight/ and Dear God, keep America free."
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