Written by Bruce Robison
American songs about combat soldiers coming home, or not coming home, have existed since long before the music business as we know it (think “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” from the Civil War). From early sheet music to today’s digital downloads, such songs have been big sellers because of the genuine emotion and sentiment behind the lyrics and melodies, and because so many people have lost their loved ones to war. One of the best of these songs is “Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks.
While the Chicks themselves are good writers, they’ve also recorded a lot of good songs written by others. This was the case with “Travelin’ Soldier,” composed by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. Robison had recorded the song himself in the 1990s to little fanfare, but he hit the jackpot when the Chicks recorded it for their Home album in 2002. “Travelin’ Soldier” soon climbed to the top of the country charts as a single.
A song about a lovelorn teenage girl waiting for the return of the young Army soldier she barely knows, Robison paints a vivid image of a small-town Friday night at the local high school football field when the girl learns of her soldier’s fate: One Friday night at a football game/The Lord’s Prayer said and the anthem sang/A man said folks would you bow your head/For the list of local Vietnam dead/Crying all alone under the stands/Was the piccolo player in the marching band/And one name read and nobody really cared/But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair. The song really is a mini-movie, and Robison’s visual lyrics still bring tears to the eyes of a lot of listeners with this song.
“Travelin’ Soldier” was more than just a well-written and emotional piece of work. It was recorded by the Chicks while the U.S. was sending young people to fight in Afghanistan, so it was also timely, even though Robison had actually written it about a Vietnam War soldier. But since there’s always a war somewhere, it would have been relevant whenever it was cut. Then, just as the song was climbing the charts to number one, Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her displeasure with then-President George W. Bush from the concert stage because of his pro-war stance. Country radio stations pulled “Travelin’ Soldier” from their playlists over Maines’ remarks, and within weeks the song had disappeared. The career of the Dixie Chicks went into decline, and while they’ve never completely gone away, things have never been the same for them either.
And now the Dixie Chicks are back with a new song, “Gaslighter,” and Bruce Robison, a journeyman writer and performer if there ever was one (he’s still at it, often with wife Kelly Willis), hopefully got good mailbox money and some satisfaction from touching a lot of people with a great song.