Memorial Day, an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Some of the finest American songwriters have paid homage to the holiday by addressing it in their 21st Century work. The following five songs approach Memorial Day from various angles. Seek them out if you haven’t heard them. Your ears and patriotic spirit will thank you.
“Dress Blues” by Jason Isbell
From his six years with Drive-By Truckers that began in 2001 through his 2013 solo masterpiece, Southeastern, Jason Isbell has written and performed many fine songs. The eulogy “Dress Blues” is among his best. The centerpiece of 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, it concerns the death of Corporal Matthew Conley, a U.S. Marine from Isbell’s hometown of Greenhill, Ala., who was killed in the Iraq War. Conley died exactly one week before his 22nd birthday, just two days before he was to ship home from Iraq for the birth of his daughter. Avoiding both political heavy-handedness and the cheesiness that mars many soldier songs, Isbell eloquently tells the story of Conley’s funeral by focusing on the humanity of the event and its importance to the people of Greenhill (the funeral procession stretched 15 miles long to the cemetery). The Zac Brown Band released their version of the song in April. While it’s a noble gesture that will likely bring Isbell a nice chunk of change and some new fans, nothing matches the songwriter’s own version. Isbell’s next album, Something More Than Free, will be released July 17.
“Angel Flight” by Radney Foster
Written by Foster along with Darden Smith, “Angel Flight” is a name for the Texas Air National Guard C-130 aircraft that transports the bodies of Texas National Guardsmen slain in combat. The song came about partly due to conversations Smith had with Lt. Col. Jim Nugent, an employee of the Texas National Guard Support Foundation. Nugent told Smith about Red River 44, a mission in which seven Guardsmen died when their Chinook helicopter crashed outside Tallil, Iraq. When Smith learned that pilots called transporting the bodies “angel flights,” the song’s title was born. The song itself was written a couple weeks later when Smith visited Foster in Nashville. Built around a heartbreaking “Come on brother, I’m taking you home” refrain, this moving tribute to the pilots who fly their fallen brethren home first appeared on Foster’s Revival album in 2009, and features the distinctive voice of mainstream country artist Darius Rucker on harmony vocals. Smith’s version can be found on his 2013 album, Love Calling.
“Travelin’ Soldier” by The Dixie Chicks
The biggest selling all-female group in country music history, the Dixie Chicks were true musical trailblazers who delivered perhaps their finest performance with their 2002 recording of this Bruce Robison composition. The song chronicles the long-distance romance between a high school girl and a young American soldier during the Vietnam War era. The two build a relationship through a series of letters, with the girl vowing to remain true to her soldier each time she receives one. The last letter from the soldier mentions that “it’s gettin’ kinda rough over here” and that he “won’t be able to write for a while.” The song’s final verse then takes place prior to a football game at the girl’s high school. After the National Anthem and Lord’s Prayer, the local Vietnam dead are announced. The soldier’s name is on the list, and the girl, who is a piccolo player in the marching band, recognizes it. She then mourns for him alone under the bleachers, with singer Natalie Maines pouring out her heart into the song’s devastating refrain: “I cried/Never gonna hold the hand of another guy/Too young for him they told her/Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier.”
The single went to #1 on the Billboard country charts, and was still being promoted to country radio when, on March 10, 2003, Maines told a London, England, audience the band was “ashamed” that then-United States President George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Country radio stations promptly pulled the song from their playlists, while many now-former fans protested by publically destroying their Dixie Chicks CDs. But while mainstream country turned its back on the Dixie Chicks, the trio’s legacy of 13 Grammy Awards and more than 30 million albums sold remains intact. Meanwhile, “Travelin’ Soldier” arguably ranks as their shining moment, and remains one of the best country singles of the 21st Century.
“Day After Tomorrow” by Tom Waits
One of popular music’s true mavericks, Waits didn’t include political songs on any of his albums until the release of 2004’s Real Gone more than three decades into his career. Its highlight is the set-closing “Day After Tomorrow,” an antiwar meditation that rates as one of Waits’ most heartfelt performances. Written by Waits along with Kathleen Brennan, it approaches the subject of war from the perspective of a disillusioned, 21-year-old soldier getting ready to return to his home in Illinois. Presented in the form of a letter to a loved one, this elegantly rendered rumination addresses some philosophical questions about war, asking “How does God choose?” and ‘Whose prayer does He refuse?” But the song hits hardest when the soldier reveals the small things he misses about everyday life at home, such as shoveling snow and raking leaves. The narrator then reflects on what has been his struggle for survival by stating “I am not fighting for justice / I’m not fighting for freedom / I’m just fighting for my life here / and another day in this world, dear.” While the narrator is filled with fear, doubt, and a longing for home, he cynically opines that war is a pointless ritual that each generation must endure.
This powerful song has since been recorded by such distinguished vocalists as Joan Baez and Linda Thompson, while Waits’ own version was featured in MoveOn.org’s Future Soundtrack of America.
“Memorial Day” by James McMurtry
The son of novelist Larry McMurtry, the Texas-born singer-songwriter has been unafraid of taking on weighty topics in his songs. Among his more pointed compositions are “We Can’t Make It Here,” a powerful working-class anthem about people who have been shut out of the American dream, and “Cheney’s Toy,” a piercing critique of George W. Bush’s presidency. Taken from the 2005 Childish Things album that included “We Can’t Make It Here,” the bouncy “Memorial Day” is lighthearted in comparison. McMurtry talk-sings lyrics about how many Americans spend Memorial Day traveling by car to attend family gatherings. While in the car, mama is trying to get the ballgame on radio so her husband can find out the score. Meanwhile, the whole family is wondering whether they’ll get to go fishing when they get to grandma’s house. Once they arrive, the mundane and dysfunctional aspects of family life take over. Amid the cold beer, the freshly baked pie, and the 98-degree heat, there’s plenty of fighting, arguing and cussing. Lost in all the travel, festiveness and squabbling is what the day is supposed to be about in the first place. This is subtly noted by McMurtry, who deadpans “It’s Memorial Day in America/Everybody’s on the road/Let’s remember our fallen heroes/Y’all be sure and drive slow.”