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Conversations with Kenny Rogers, Mary Gauthier and The Groundlings' Tracy & Laraine Newman, Plus Marcus Goldhaber

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A Conversation with Kenny Rogers

Mike Ragogna: Kenny, let's start with your latest album, You Can't Make Old Friends. I think in the case of Kenny Rogers, you probably can't count the number of old friends you have.

Kenny Rogers: I am so lucky because I've enjoyed a long span... The interesting thing about the music is that there's kind of an American Idol mentality today and I don't think that's wrong, but everybody likes the hero and they push them up the charts and then it's, "Okay, who's next?" I think the faster you go up, the faster you come down. I think I was at that period of time where people had to buy the whole album, and in buying an album you got to see what else the artist was interested in and you got the feel of the depth of what was really important to that guy or that girl. I think the longer it takes to reach the pinnacle of your success, the longer your glide ratio down, and I think that's what I've been lucky on. I had a chance to build up a fanbase over a period of about forty years and they don't forget. I think they understand it when I do a song that's different or when I do a duet, because it's typical of what I do.

MR: You have many famous duets, recordings with Dottie West, Dolly Parton, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton and many others. How do you choose your partners?

KR: The trick I've learned from doing duets is you don't start with a partner, you start with a song and then you say, "Who could sing this song well?" It's unfair to bring somebody in on a song they can't really perform. It doesn't make any sense for me to sound good on it, since I know I can do it, and then have a song that they can't really put their heart and soul in. That's what I think I've been best at, finding the right people for the right songs, and the right people are Sheena Easton and Kim Carnes and Dottie West and of course Dolly Parton, and Ronnie Milsap. I did a duet with Ronnie Milsap that won a Grammy. It was an exciting thing, it was "Make No Mistake, She's Mine," two guys fighting over a girl. And I did another song with Kim Carnes and James Ingram called "What About Me?" where there's three people in a relationship going, "Hey, wait a minute, what about me?" It was a great piece of music, it did pretty well. But I really loved the voices together, I thought we all sounded good, and that's the trick.

MR: Kenny, your material has been A-league since The First Edition. How do you choose what you record?

KR: I think that's always been my strength, finding good songs and recognizing their value. I figure if a song touches me I have a shot at making it touch someone else. If it doesn't touch me I'm no good, I can't bring anything to the table. But I just love finding those songs. There's one on this new album called "You Had To Be There," about a father that visits his son in prison, and he's complaining about his son and what he's done and how ashamed he is and his son says, "Wait a minute, you had to be there back when I was nine." It's just so true. It's a wonderful piece of music.

MR: How do you keep your voice in shape?

KR: I've made a lot of money with a bad throat, that's all I can tell you.

MR: Ha, I disagree, sir.

KR: Well, I think there's a certain amount of honesty in what I do and I think that shows up on tracks and I'm so thrilled with that. I've tried to do a couple of things that were out of my territory and I realized just how bad they were, so I think you stick with your strengths as a rule.

MR: You've incorporated a fair amount of styles into your repertoire, so how would you describe your growth over the years? Has there been a particular thing that's really evolved to get you to this point?

KR: First of all, I think styles are developed through appreciation. If I do something and enough people say, "I don't like it when you do that," I quit doing that. And if I do something they like I try to find more places to do it. That's how you develop a style. For me, I think I'm a country singer with a lot of other musical influences. I'm in the music business because of Ray Charles. I went to see him when I was twelve years old, and somebody said the other day it's amazing the number of men who determine between the ages of twelve and fifteen what they want to be in their life. They want to be a fireman, they want to be an astronaut, whatever it is, and I decided I want to be a musician. I didn't even know I could sing, but everybody laughed at everything Ray Charles said, they clapped for everything he sang, I thought, "Boy, I just want to do that." That's how I determined what I wanted to do.

MR: Ray Charles was another artist who straddled all sorts of genres, especially with country songs like "I Can't Stop Loving You."

KR: He did that album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, that was an eye-opener for me, because what he did was he sang country songs to R&B tracks and I thought, "Well I can do that!" so that's when I got in touch with Lionel Richie because I loved all the stuff he did with The Commodores. When you break them down musically, they were really country songs. He's incredible, he writes from the art, so I thought it would be fun to do this. I called Lionel and I said, "I'd love for you to write a song for my next album." He said, "Well I'm really very busy," and I said, "Okay, it'll go on the greatest hits album and it'll probably sell five or six million," and he said, "How's Sunday night at eight o'clock?" But it was really a good friendship and a great musical relationship. I think he put us through the years, too.

MR: Yeah. "Lady" is such a classic, but when I hear his "Stuck On You," even back in the day I thought, "Wait, that could be a Kenny Rogers song."

KR: Yeah, that's what I told him! I said, "How dare you! How dare you write something and not let me have it." I'm so selfish sometimes.

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

KR: Pay your taxes on time and put twenty percent aside. That's it. If you're going into it for the money, don't get into it. The money only comes after years of unrewarded effort. I think that if you go into it because it's what you want to do... My mom gave me the greatest advice when I was young. She said, "Son, always be happy where you are. Never be content to be there but if you're not happy with where you are, you'll never be happy." It really worked for me. When I was at the low point of my career, when First Edition was breaking up, I was still happy. "Hey, I'm still making music, what do I need?" I think that's what my advice would be. Assuming you have some talent going into it, stay true to yourself, because I'm a believer that we're all three people--I'm who I think I am, I'm who you think I am, and I'm who I really am. Now, the question is, how close are those three together? When you look at the people who have survived, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, they are who they say they are. That's how the longevity comes in.

MR: Making the transition from The First Edition to Kenny Rogers the solo artist must have been interesting.

KR: You know, when you think about First Edition songs, they were really country music. The First Edition had "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town," we had another song called "But You Know I Love You," it was really a country group who stepped out-of-bounds to do "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." It was not a big leap for me. Plus my mom listened to country music forever when I was a kid, so I was very familiar with it. I actually got into jazz as an accident. I played upright bass and sang with this jazz group and loved it beccause I think it gave me a great musical comprehension of a different style of music. Then of course going with the New Christy Minstrels taught me the value of story songs with social significance. That was a big part of my career, I didn't just do songs, I did songs that had something to say. "Coward Of The County" is about a rape, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" is about a Vietnam veteran that came home. "Reuben James" is about a black man who raised a white child. They all have something to say and I think that's the key to having long-range hits. But mostly you have to be true to yourself, because if you're lucky enough to have a long career, the public does not like surprises. They like to know who you are.

MR: Yeah, and they like to love who you are as well. I think that's a part of why fans follow artists beyond the creativity.

KR: That's right. I'm always amazed at how much people will do for someone they like and how much they won't do for someone they don't like.

MR: [laughs] Kenny, many of your songs embedded themselves into the culture. For instance, you couldn't turn on a radio or go out to a bar without hearing "Lucille" or "The Gambler" for decades. Are you aware you've impacted pop culture?

KR: I'm very aware of that. In fact, I just did a Geico commercial based on that and it's really funny. I love songs like that, and I think I've had a couple of those, but "The Gambler" has just such repeatable dialog and it's actually not about gambling, it's a way of life. I think it sort of applies in so many different circumstances and situations.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Mary Gauthier

Mike Ragogna: Mary, it's been four years, right? How could you do that to us!

Mary Gauthier: What did I do? Oh, the records. [laughs] It takes a while, man! It's hard work, writing these things.

MR: What went into this one? Take us on a little tour of Trouble & Love.

MG: Well, it's a story of loss. There's the beginning and the middle and the end of the process that we go through, mostly when we lose something important to us. I tried to capture that while I wrote this thing. I wrote thirty-five songs for this record and eight songs made the cut.

MR: Since only eight songs made the cut, does that mean the others were purely for the purpose of a catharsis?

MG: It's not for a catharsis, really. The process is about trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Songwriting tends to try to make sense out of utter chaos and put a story to it with a beginning, a middle, and an end, under four minutes, that then we look at and go, "Oh yeah, that's what happened! I couldn't make sense of it when I was in it, but yeah, I've been through that. I don't really write for catharsis, I get that kind of work done in therapy. I've come to terms with the fact that I'll probably be in therapy all of my life. [laughs] Every time I think I'm done, I'm not. I write to make sense of things that are confusing and emotionally complex and like Hank Williams, I try to simplify it so that I can play it for people and they can look back at me and go, "You're not alone, Mary, yes, I have felt this too." In that simple act we somehow create a connection that means a lot to both the artist and the listener.

MR: The song "When A Woman Goes Cold," that in particular seems to set a lot of the tone of how you were feeling at the time. What do you think about that?

MG: I'm not sure if I got into how I was feeling so much as how she was
feeling. I think the song captures a phenomenon that might or might not be unique to women, which is that once you push a woman past the point of no return, she can't come back. There's a place where she disappears. I have experienced this from both sides, I've been that person and I've been on the other side of that person, and I've seen it enough to consider a phenomenon, and that's how the song was born. I'm like, "Okay, I thought it was just me or just her, but it's happened enough for me to think maybe there's a universal in there," and as a songwriter I'm going for the universal always. My personal diary is irrelevant to most people and it's not good enough, it's not deep enough, I'm looking for human nature and I think I nailed something there, because the way audiences react, particularly women, tells me a lot of people have experienced this thing.

MR: And there's another song like that, "I've Learned To Live Alone," which to me is as blatant a statement of what you went through.

MG: Yeah. You know, when you reach a certain age you've lost someone, it's just part of life. We connect and we move along and then it disconnects and there's loss, and that loss is a grieving process. The goal, I think, is to not stay stuck in the sorrow but to keep moving through it and keep the heart open. I think it's hard to explain what this song captures, but I think the character's moving forward, reluctantly, doesn't want to let go but has to. It's beginning to move past the sorrow into acceptance. There's a matter-of-factness about it that tries to speak to acceptance. In the acceptance of the loss comes some peace.

MR: Mary, one of the albums that affected me the most over the last couple of years was Mary Chapin Carpenter's Ashes & Roses. Now here comes your album that touches the same nerve in some respects. Is there something in the water? I'm not making light of what you went through to get to this album, but it seems like songwriters are connecting even more deeply with their lives for their art.

MG: I agree. I think Bob Dylan showed us that songs can rise to the level of literature and he proved it over and over again, that's why they keep trying to get him a Nobel Prize for literature, because there is no Nobel Prize for songwriting. There should be, and he should be the first one to have that put around his neck. He taught us that songs can go to the place where literature goes, which is a deep exploration of the human condition, and Chapin is one of the very best, Chapin is brilliant. Her songwriting is incredible. I walk with the knowledge that this is my goal, this is what I want to do as a songwriter, I'm hoping to connect in that way. Ultimately what I want is for my songs to outlive me, I want my songs to keep being played even after I'm gone.

MR: And it's not so much about your personal legacy but the legacy or power of what you're saying.

MG: Exactly! It's so that people can go, "Yeah! Me too, me too. I'm not alone. This is not just something that's happened to me because God hates me." This is the human condition, this is what we are here to deal with and most of us end up in the position to have to deal with it. It's biblical in scope, some of these things are just going to repeat in perpetuity. Each being comes in and boo, some of this is going to happen. So I think it creates hope, when you see yourself in songs, even if the songs are intense and considered "sad songs." I think sad songs can be very helpful, as long as they're honest. An honest song, there's life in it. That's why I didn't make a record with thirty-five songs, that's why I didn't put all those songs in it, because some of them were just too sad, it wasn't the truth. The truth is that sadness is a temporary state in grief. You move to acceptance, and through the acceptance of what's gone down your heart reopens and hopefully, love will come back. It almost always does if you're open to it.

MR: That's why I used the word "catharsis" earlier.

MG: I kind of flinch a little at "catharsis" because it just sounds so "confessional." I'm not saying I'm not confessional, I'm just saying that I wanted to go all the way down to the human condition. I don't want it to be a melodic reading of my diary, to me that's just incredibly boring.

MR: How did you approach this album, and moreover the whole batch of thirty-five songs? Was it different from the last time you made a record?

MG: The process was about the same, you sit and stare at a blank page with a guitar in your hand until something happens, the process remains the same. I have a writing room, I have totems in my writing room from so many different places I've traveled; I've got a Harry Potter wand that was given to me by someone in England; I've got eagle feathers given to me by an American Indian, I've got hobo nickels given to me by hobos, just a pile of stuff. I've got a Bob Dylan 45 of "Positively Fourth Street" that was given to me by a woman in Belgium; it's an absolutely 45 in perfect condition. I've got stuff in here that was given to me in love and kindness, so it surrounds me in my writing room and I come in here and sit down and work. I'm hoping to conduct electricity somehow, I've got a lightning rod hanging out the window, looking for the lightning, and if that doesn't change, that doesn't change.

MR: You've got a few cool people guesting on this project, too, such as Beth Nielsen Chapman. What was the recording process like? What were you up to?

MG: We were up to something that was really old-fashioned. We recorded on tape, we didn't use computers and Pro Tools and so forth. We recorded on tape and that required dusting off an old tape machine and finding tape to record on to. We didn't use headphones, we all sat together in the room and played together. it was stripped down, the old-fashioned way, the way Sinatra recorded. Get everybody in there and you play together. I think that's my favorite, too, because there's an honesty in it and there's also a humanity in it, there's imperfections and, for lack of a better word, mistakes. But oftentimes the mistakes are the most beautiful part. So we just stripped it down, I got the best players that I could get my hands on in Nashville, Guthrie [Trapp] is an incredible guitar player, Lynn Williams is an incredible drummer, and we just played them. We played the songs four or five times and we knew when we had it, and when we had it we moved on to the next one. We cut this thing in less than a week.

MR: When you listened back to Darrell Scott's performance on your track "Old Soul," what did you think?

MG: That still takes my breath away. He just outdid himself. He is incredibly gifted, he's one of the most gifted artists I've ever met and he's a dear, dear friend. We just put him and said, "Just sing. Just sing, Darrell. Just sing. Get in there and just sing," and he sang his heart out. I'm so very grateful that he took time out of his unbelievably busy schedule to come work with me on this record. He contributed so much, he's just phenomenal, and I bow to him, he's a monster. We've been working together for a long time, we've taught songwriting together around the world, we've been friends for a long time and it's been a real joy to watch the world come to find him and finally see him get his deserved claim. He's been great forever.

MR: I bet it's nice to have supportive friends accompanying you on musical adventures.

MG: It's fun to share with people that are also on their own journey. We give each other standing ovations, we're very supportive. Nashville's not competitive, not the circles I run in. We can see what each other's done and it inspires us, but we're not trying to crush each other, we're trying to help each other because we realize how hard this is, what we're trying to do.

MR: Excellent, that's so healthy, and it's so not what the atmosphere was when I lived in Nashville.

MG: Well you were probably around commercial country music.

MR: Exactly.

MG: This is not that. We're trying to be artists, we're trying to be in Paris with the creative types at the turn of the century. We're looking for Gertrude Stein, we're looking for truth and beauty on a level that surpasses what's come before us. We're digging for diamonds and gold, we're not digging for country fucking radio. Every now and then something accidentally happens and you land here and it's great because it just pays the bills like you wouldn't believe, but that's not the goal.

MR: Many have covered your material such as Jimmy Buffett and Blake Shelton.

MG: Yeah, every now and then they find songs and record them and I'm so grateful. I've got to tell you, it really helps. But we don't sit down with that as the goal, that could never be the goal for me. I don't sit down and try to figure out what Blake Shelton would record. I just try to get to my truth and every now and then it intersects with their truth, which is a great honor.

MR: Are you proud of your albums in that way? You're pretty confident that your career has followed that paradigm until now?

MG: Yeah. I know that each record I've put out is the very best that I could do at the time. With that I can live peacefully, I have peace around my work because I know I never, ever, ever stopped for a moment until I knew it was the best I could do, every single syllable, every single note, I didn't phone in any of it. The best that I can do is the best that I can do and I have that peace. Yeah.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

MG: The way I see it, and I believe this is true, the entire music business is an inverted pyramid, and the tip of the pyramid sits on a song. There would be no music business without songs, so the song is what matters. You've got to get your songs right, and for me your song's not right until you're utterly honest. So my advice is to strip it down, be vulnerable, get real, get honest, people resonate with that and it matters more than anything. That's been my experience and I think that's why I have a career.

MR: Are you going to be touring?

MG: Oh, I'm touring like crazy. I'm working with Iraq War veterans, US soldiers, we've got an organization called Songwriting With Soldiers, I'll be with three other female writers working with female vets who have incurred trauma in Iraq and we're going to help them tell their story through song, and in that we're going to hopefully take that giant step from victim to storyteller. Once you tell your story it no longer tells you. We're hoping to help them. Then I'm going to the UK, I've got a conference I'm speaking at, I've got tour dates and tour dates and tour dates, I'm booked all the way through January at this point. When this record hits, I'm gone for a year, period. I'm out of here!

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne

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photo courtesy of The Groundlings

A Conversation with The Groundlings' Tracy & Laraine Newman

Mike Ragogna: Forty years is a long time! How did you come up with the group's name and how did it all begin?

Tracy Newman: In 1973 or so, when we were doing shows at the Oxford Theatre--before we built the current Groundlings Theatre on Melrose--we were just a group of 25 or so actor/improvisers who were taking classes with Gary Austin, our fearless leader. We had a meeting to come up with a name for our group. A few people--including Laraine and I and I think, Mary Cross--wanted "The Working Class," and Gary, or someone, suggested "The Groundlings." In Shakespeare, "groundlings" were the people in the cheap seats at a show--from Hamlet--"Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise."

Laraine Newman: There have been several versions of this and I don't know which one is true. I don't know who came up with the name, all I know is we put two names to a vote: The Groundlings and The Working Class. I felt we would outgrow the style of a name like The Groundlings. That it was a Renaissance Fair kind of notion. I thought The Working Class was great because we were a class and I liked the double entendre of the political reference. It's a good thing I'm not a gambler.

MR: What does it mean to be a Groundling these days?

TN: Well, if you're in the main company or the Sunday company, and you're in the shows, you get the enviable opportunity to perform for TV and film people who are looking for talent. It didn't used to be like that at the beginning, but after Laraine Newman was plucked out of the company by Lorne Michaels, for a new NBC show he was launching--a little, live comedy show called Saturday Night Live--The Groundlings were on the show bizz map.

MR: What are some of the highlights of your time together? Are there any that were life-changing on a personal level?

TN: Do you mean with The Groundlings or with Laraine as my sister? Having Laraine as my sister is completely inspiring and life-changing. I love her. She's brilliant. Even as a little girl, she had me laughing all the time. Being in The Groundlings was life-changing because I got to be involved on the ground floor of the new wave of comedy in LA. I was laughing all the time and because there was so much writing and re-writing, I was totally prepared for my TV writing career.

LN: Tracy is responsible for my being in The Groundlings and the rest is history. If that isn't life changing, I don't know what is. She is so amazingly talented and inspires me by how she continues to explore her talent. She has a particularly brilliant daughter as well. I think just working with Tracy and peeing in our pants. Laughing till we couldn't breathe.

MR: Why do you think The Groundlings has such a loyal fan base?

TN: Because they're home-grown. They're a staple here in LA. Come rain or come shine, you can count on big laughs at The Groundlings. You're sure to see the stars of today and tomorrow every time you go to a show. It's a guaranteed good time. Where else can you pay $15-$20 and sit in a 99 seat theatre and see Laraine Newman, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Paul Reubens, Lisa Kudrow, Melissa McCarthy--the list is endless--in an all improv show, just because they happened to drop by or had a free night? Where else can you see so many brilliant kids who are just starting out and will most likely soon be on SNL or in a movie or sitcom?

LN: I know what it means to me to be a Groundling today. I'm so proud of the incredible creativity and talent that has come out of the company. I don't ever consider myself to be an erstwhile Groundling. I will always feel connected to it as I do to SNL. As for the current people coming through the school and company, the sky is the limit. There is not other place I can think of where you can get the kind of training that is offered there. The Groundlings has created their own technique for crafting characters and writing for them and as far as I know, that is singular to them. My God, I never imagined it would be so venerable but, if you can make it there.....

MR: It's unusual to jump from comedy to music or back and forth. How do you merge the worlds? Laraine, do you have other juggling tricks?

TN: Before I joined Gary Austin's class that became The Groundlings, I was a singer/songwriter. When I was in The Groundlings, I started the song improv class. After a few years, I turned it over to the astounding Phyllis Katz, who was and is the strongest song-improviser I've ever seen. When I wrote for TV, I often placed my songs in the shows I was writing for. When I left TV writing, it was only natural that I would go back to being a singer/songwriter. The worlds were always intertwined. In fact, on Wednesday, May 21st at 10PM, I'm bringing my band to The Groundlings to do a one-hour show. It's part of the 40th Anniversary month of the company. Gary Austin is a singer/songwriter now, too, and I was going to open for him, but he'll be recovering from surgery at that time, so I'm doing the show alone... well, with some surprise guests.

LN: The work I do in animation is a natural progression from doing characters and employing the technique of improvisation. Through the years, because I love my work so much, I've simply sought to explore dialects and stretch my voice for the sake of it, never knowing I'd be able to use those skills. Unlike Tracy, I'm not a singer. I realized that when I took singing lessons from her teacher. Sure, I can carry a tune and I discovered I have a 4 octave range and that's why I can sound like a baby, a small child, a teenage boy or an old crone..but can I sing? F**k no.

MR: What was the creative process like for the material?

TN: We would improvise in class, and when there was a particularly funny scene, we would recreate it, and perform it over and over to make it better. In the early years of the Groundlings, a scene could stay in the show for two or three years. I was in a sketch called "Reunion" that opened the show for years!

LN: I worked a lot with my sister Tracy and there was no better cheerleader, judge, and teacher. She pushed me to explore my characters and brought out material I never even considered. Sometimes we created sketches through improv but more often, since my main work in the show were 'in one' character monologues, I would have things I wanted to say as my characters and would start with a big rambling piece of crap with some pretty good jokes in it. Then night after night of performing the pieces, each time improvising something and keeping the stuff that worked, I'd arrive at a crafted piece I was happy with.

MR: Where do you go from here, post 40th anniversary?

TN: Well, you know, there is life after The Groundlings 40th Anniversary. For me, it's continuing my singer/songwriter career, which is really fun for me.

LN: Home, where I take off my makeup, put on my pajamas and eat in front of the TV.....oh, did you mean what's next? Well, I have a pretty great animation career that keeps me quite busy plus stage shows that are tremendous fun and sometimes an on camera role here and there that actually pays some money. You can look for my upcoming shows on Facebook or http://www.larainenewman.com

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

TN: If you like the show at The Groundlings, and you feel you've found your home, take the beginning class and find out if it's really where you belong. If it is, then be persistent and keep taking classes until you either get in or start getting work in the business as a writer or whatever. More importantly--make friends in class. These people will be the future of comedy, and you want to be a part of it.

LN: Read books and other things but read! Work hard. Get plenty of sleep. See as many other performers as you can so you can be sure what you're doing is original. Be supportive of other performers. This is your world and your family.

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photo credit: James Dean

Groundling Info: http://tracynewman.com/upcoming-events-list/http://tracynewman.com/upcoming-events-list/

COME HOME AMERICA

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Photo credit: Eric Van den Brulle

According to Marcus Goldhaber...

"We made this music video to reinforce the mission of the 'Come Home America' project: to bridge the gap between civilian and military families. The video utilizes new footage of soldiers and families reuniting to help express the desires of so many military families, especially those with veterans who have already served multiple consecutive tours. This song is not politically motivated; it's my response to an overwhelming desire across the country to be a more connected society, and to understand why so many of our troops come home and develop varying cases of PTSD or severe depression that unfortunately lead to suicide. The 'Come Home America' project uses music to share different stories and perspectives to help elevate the conversation about military life in this country. We'll back this up on May 23rd with an official launch at The Cutting Room in New York as an official Fleet Week concert, with support from Liberty USO. My hope is that through music, we can all learn more about our differences and take better care of each other."

http://www.ComeHomeAmericaTour.com