It is a fool who glorifies combat. Still, the military recruits young, they recruit poor. It is a wonderful vehicle for those without many options; a chance for the poor but ambitious to attend college, and a quick ticket to citizenship for the foreign born seeking opportunity. As physically, mentally, and spiritually damaging as war might be, it does add a rare element to an individual’s perspective.
Equally, war creates a select fraternity amongst the men and women of a certain class, delineating a line between those who did and those who did not. It isn’t the type of club typified by secret handshakes or networking opportunities. Rather it’s a mutual understanding. At its basic level it’s often unspoken but imperceptibly binding across race, creed, or age. It doesn’t make two men drinking buddies, but it does bridge a gulf between strangers.
Sitting next to him in a bar, if you were to turn and ask Chuck Hawthorne what he did, he likely wouldn’t tell you he’s a retired officer with the Marines and veteran of Iraq. Instead he’d answer, “I’m a musician.” You wouldn’t think twice, either. He looks the part. Lean, a bit weathered, sporting a cowboy hat and peppered beard, the Texas native fits the guise of hungry singer to a T.
If you were to inquire and receive a copy of his first record, Silver Line the larger history would become clear. ‘Welding Sun of a Gun’ is a deftly written, poetic metaphor about exchanging all the disparaging aspects of one’s history for a more productive future. The song plays out as a question for the protagonist, who seems eager but doubtful about the prospects of creation from the seeds of so much destruction. “It’s hotter than hell and brighter than the sun, pulling the trigger you’re a heart welding sun of a gun.” So the song goes, sung wistfully but with intent over a sparse picking pattern.
Along with the opening titular track, ‘Welding Son of a Gun’ presents finely written but typical Americana fare. It is with the third track Hawthorne emerges from the glut of the singer/songwriter herd. ‘Bound to Be Bound’ picks up the tempo and replaces soft plucking for a more sinister rhythmic device. The lyrics become unabashedly dark, combining the only two things really worth singing about, sex and death.
In places Silver Line falls prey to the amateur’s gambit of answerless questions and the first person point of view. However, rhetoric is useful when done well and Hawthorne seems to be aware of this. There are some few instances of misplaced footing, but it’s best to recall that despite his age, and the scope of his songwriting ability, Silver Line is a first album. For that fact alone, this is an exciting release. Add to that musical contributions from Gurf Morlix, backing vocals from Eliza Gilkyson and it seems Hawthorne is making all the right friends within the industry.
Silver Line plays out like a western noir. With songs about train lines, coal mines, love, death and misfortune there’s some depth there to please every offshoot of the Americana genre. Combining folk narratives against country picking Hawthorne could really go in any direction, but prefers his own hybrid blend. Before the album closes out though, Hawthorne addresses his history one last time on ‘Post 2 Gate.’
There’s so many cowardly ways to kill a man in war: drones, snipers, but none moreso than the IED. Whether strapped across a zealot’s chest or buried beneath the dirt there is no way to protect or defend yourself against such a weapon. In ‘Post 2 Gate,’ Hawthorne relates the story of a suicide by just such a device. It is a painful, powerful song, well executed and emphatic. In it Hawthorne steers well clear of cliché by neither condemning the enemy nor glorifying the battle.
We desperately need songwriters like Chuck Hawthorne. When you look at American society it’s important to note that very soon an entire generation of young people will have grown up knowing only the America of war and poverty. Music is fine. It’s a fun and silly way to pleasingly pass the hours, but much like sports it is also a distraction that seems to rob some of us away from the larger context of our lives and times. This generation without any firsthand knowledge of the peace and prosperity of the nineties is precedent to one that served through some of the darker years of our nation’s history.
The soldiers have mostly come home now from Iraq and Afghanistan to finish out their lives in quiet corners far removed from the battlefield. But they are left to wonder what the wars meant, and most won’t have the outlet in music Chuck Hawthorne does. Most should be fine, but some will turn to drugs and alcohol. Others will flounder trying to make it on their own and many will discover the war has followed them back home. Suicide is not uncommon among returning vets. Every bible beating, chart topping, faux populist looking to turn a buck by beating the war drum should look to Silver Line for guidance on just how to address the issues of conflict with just a little bit of wit, tact, and grace.