Songs for (and by) soldiers

Matthew Griswold and Rockie Lynne turned to music careers after years in the military. But they didn't stop serving.

Matthew Griswold heads up a veteran's aid concert this weekend.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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The way they make it sound, there's no way they could not write songs about the things they've seen in service to their country.

"Playing music was my way to vent," Matthew Griswold said.

Rockie Lynne put it this way: "When you see real heroes up close, it definitely affects you and inspires you in permanent ways."

These two Twin Cities songwriters are at different places in their music careers, but they're both former Army servicemen who are making it their mission this weekend to honor their fellow soldiers with their songs.

Lynne, 45, is a known name in Nashville who has played the Grand Ole Opry and recorded for Universal Records. Griswold, 27, is just now breaking into the Twin Cities music scene and putting out his first album. The former makes polished music, fit for mainstream country radio and national TV spots, while the latter has more of a howling, dramatic edge that works in rock clubs and coffeehouses.

They have the same goals in mind for Memorial Day, though. Lynne has put out a new album, "Songs for Soldiers," featuring music he wrote to play for troops in Iraq in 2008. A third of the CD's profits will go to military causes, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he performed last weekend.

"It's hard to see these wounded heroes trying to come to grips with the new challenges in their lives, but it's encouraging, too," Lynne said by phone after leaving the hospital.

Griswold is heading up the Veteran's Aid Concert at the Fine Line Music Cafe on Monday. The event will benefit the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, which Griswold picked for its assistance to homeless veterans and others who have trouble reintegrating to civilian life.

"Now that I've been home for about a year, I can definitely relate to how hard it can be adjust," he said.

Griswold served one year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division. Much of his time was spent in the violent hotbed Ramadi -- "during the worst of its time," he said. He also served in Kuwait and spent several years based in Germany, where he had originally asked to serve after leaving Minnesota State University at Moorhead and walking into a recruitment office at the age of 20.

"I was young and wanted to see the world," recalled Griswold, who spent most of his youth in Woodbury. "I wound up seeing a little more of the world than I expected."

An aspiring singer/songwriter heavily into Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews even before he entered the service, Griswold took a guitar overseas. He wound up performing for fellow soldiers here and there ("attentive crowds, since they don't have any alcohol," he quipped). He also started writing songs while in the service and came back with a few featured on his new album, "Screaming From the Witch's Tower," loaded with dramatic imagery and Cities 97-style acoustic rock.

"The songs definitely came out a little differently -- and easier -- than they did prior to my active duty," Griswold said. "I guess I had more things inside me rising to the surface."

One of his best songs, "Crazy," was originally improvised on duty while he strummed his guitar amid a group of Iraqi soldiers. "It was about how easy it is for our cultures to get along when we want them to," he said, "but there's also the postwar side of it, where soldiers who come back with problems can be easily cast as 'crazy.'"

Griswold has written another song that he has yet to record or add to his live set called "The Day It Rained," based on members of his platoon who were struck by a car bomb in Iraq. He said, "It's pretty personal, so I'm sort of keeping it close to the vest for now."

Other than that, he said, "I try to stay away from writing songs that are specifically about my military experiences, or that are full of Americana imagery. That's just not my style."

That is definitely Lynne's style. His "Songs for Soldiers" includes sentimental and patriotic titles such as "Red, White and Blue," "Ain't America Beautiful" and "Proud to Be a Soldier." He also rounded out the album with a pedal-steel-accompanied cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and an instrumental medley of "America the Beautiful" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Another of Lynne's new original songs, "Heroes Come From Small Towns," is based on Marine Pfc. Matthew Milczark from Moose Lake, Minn., killed in action in 2004 at the age of 18. Lynne met Milczark's family during his annual Tribute to the Troops charity motorcycle ride, happening again Sept. 10-12 (info at tributetothetroops.org).

"When you meet these families and hear about the heroes that they've lost, you realize they're the kid from the football team or the kid from -- you know, Moose Lake, or any town you might pass through," Lynne said.

A North Carolina native who joined the Army straight out of high school, Lynne's dedication to the troops now is more remarkable than his actual military career with the 82nd Airborne. "I was just a mail clerk," he said flatly, "and thankfully during a time of peace."

The mail gig did give him the idea of sending one soldier on active duty a copy of his new CD for every copy sold elsewhere, since, he said, "I know how much getting something from home can mean to them."

Some of Minnesota's most-tested soldiers -- the 34th Infantry Division Red Bulls and 1-151 Field Artillery -- will get another thank-you from home in the form of a welcome-home concert Friday at Epic nightclub, featuring the Brian David Band, Sell Out Stereo, Chris Hawkey and more, benefiting the Minnesota Military Appreciation Fund and other charities. The Red Bulls returned in February but could be headed back to Iraq next year.

For an Iraq veteran such as Griswold, these concerts can serve a double purpose.

"You can raise some money, hopefully," he said, "but you can also maybe share some of music's healing qualities."

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

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