It’s striking how rarely, over fifteen years of war, the Iraq conflict and the experiences of soldiers who have fought there have appeared in American song. Songwriter Becky Warren, however, has lived the war: her husband went to Iraq, came back badly damaged, and blew up their marriage.
Warren tried to process what had happened by writing songs, moving to Nashville and subjecting herself to the concise, disciplined medium of the country song. The result was a concept album mordantly entitled War Surplus. It’s been described as rock or Americana, but the key to its power is that it’s straight out of Music City, full of the acid wordplay country songwriters have always used to describe trouble.
The songs on War Surplus are written from the points of view of both members of the couple, unnamed here but referred to elsewhere as Scott and June. We first meet June, a jaded “dive bar sweetheart” who describes herself as “a coffee mug full of bottom-shelf booze.” She meets Scott, they fall in love, and soon we’re with Scott in Iraq, where “the meaning of life is to make it back.” He returns, unable to function, and has no request other than to “Take Me Back Home (to the War).” He begins drinking heavily—”by the grace of Wild Turkey, I go on,” Warren/Scott sings—and like Warren and her real-life husband, the couple part ways.
To write about the experiences of soldiers, Warren has said, she drew on both her own knowledge and on the book My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell. Whatever the proportion of her sources, her ability to enter into experiences that have remained so unspoken in our society is extraordinary. Her depiction of war’s aftermath is brutal: “You’ve got a grenade where your mouth should be / Got a shade of rage that you save for me,” June sings. The images are concrete, their power magnified by having been distilled down to the straightforward forms of the country song.
Warren performs in Ann Arbor at this year’s NashBash one-day country music festival at Kerrytown on August 17.