Wednesday, March 5, 2014

From me to eternity

Letters resonate beyond the writer when they land in Alex Woodard’s lap

Express Staff Writer

Writer and musician, Alex Woodard with his horse Annie. Courtesy photo by Caroline Woodham

    Who among us hasn’t tried to explain something in person, only to return to our heads in frustration, putting the thoughts onto paper so they come out right?
    Writing is an exploratory experience allowing one to put forth all the emotion, intellect, passion and motivation, without interruption, without interference of self-consciousness, without the burden of watching as you start losing the listener.
    The practice of writing is enlisted in therapy for its unburdening influences and its freedom. It is, more often than not, for the author, not the recipient.

My tendency has always been to
look for the flower pushing up through the ashes.”

Alex Woodard

    It is around this premise, with letters turned into songs, that author/musician Alex Woodard, has built a moving series now in the second part of three. The idea came to focus as he had reached a crossroads professionally. Having taken a successful shot at stardom to critical and fan acclaim, he feared he was starting to lose his listeners or, at the very least, his passion for his career trajectory.
    After a disappointing gig, even with a new album with a video for his song “Reno” at No. 1 on Country Music Television’s Pure Country Countdown, and an invitation to the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival, Woodard thought support for his work was drying up and he was considering letting his dream die.
    What he didn’t know was that waiting just ahead was a three-book deal with the world’s largest independent publisher and more support than he could ever have dreamed of.
    It started with a letter from a fan named “Emily,” who thought his songs were pieces of himself that he gave to others and wanted to give him something of herself in return.
    Emily writes to her soulmate every year since he passed away and leaves the letter for him in a special place, but this year in particular, she was moved to send it to Woodard.
    Deeply touched by the letter, Alex and a friend wrote a song for Emily called ‘For The Sender,’ about how a letter is like a prayer, in that it’s often more for the sender than the receiver.
    And from there …

At the intersection of why not?
    When Brienne Mabry read Woodard’s first release in the trilogy, “For the Sender,” she, like the subjects in the book, was moved to express some of the stirrings she was experiencing with a particular horse and student she worked with at Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Bellevue. Equine therapists at the ranch are facilitated by humans to provide an interactive physical and emotional exercise for people with developmental challenges.
    Mabry wrote a letter to Sidney, a horse that had to reinvent itself to find its bliss among the working herd, and had shown himself to be adept at relating to ranch riders in particular.
    “What I wanted Sidney to ‘know’ is how grateful I am for him, and not just for giving so much to these remarkable riders at the ranch,” she said. “I am grateful to him for opening my eyes and heart to a better way of being. He is so honest (for better or worse!) and he allows me to reach people in a way I never could were it not for him.
    “Sidney helps me show my students the potential I see in them—talk is cheap but this little horse is the real deal and his riders know it. Indeed, the horses prove to their riders that they can do the things they have been told they cannot; the horses are the heroes and Sidney is one of these remarkable horses.”
    She shared a particular interaction had by Sidney and a student with autism named Christian.
    “I suppose I chose Christian’s story because it was one of those rare moments that you just know are almost magical because it’s one that anyone can recognize, whether they understand equine-assisted therapies or not.
    “Christian and Sidney had developed a relationship; he was learning empathy and beginning to recognize Sidney as his horse, apart from the other horses in our stable. For an individual with autism, this kind of awareness is remarkable and hard-fought to obtain.
    “I can’t tell you why he connects with Sidney like he does, or why he began kissing him goodbye when for so long it seemed we were protecting the horses from his slaps and pinches. I just know that their bond is strong and that incident in the story was breathtaking for so many reasons. I’m lucky to get to see some amazing things in my work, on a regular basis; when something really floors me, I take note.”
     She wrote the letter to release the energy of her thoughts. She got the letter to Woodard with no expectations. For her, the work she wrote about was done and there was more ahead. And, perhaps, she’d opened some eyes to the gift of a horse’s commitment to a rider.
    “When I found out my words were going to be ‘out there’ and in a project like this, I realized I had the opportunity to be a voice for this industry that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood and I wondered if I would be able to represent it like I wanted to,” she said. “Then I read the book, and heard the songs, and the real shift happened: all of the letters in the book come from the same place in our hearts despite being born from drastically different scenarios. The winding thread of Alex’s own experiences and interpretations of these words links us all together.”
    Her parents attended last summer’s fundraising Cowboy Ball and bid on an auction item that would send Woodard to perform a private concert for the buyer and friends. They timed it to coincide with her father’s March 4, 70th birthday.
    By the time this story is in print, they will have heard songs inspired by her letter and others, like one from the mother of a victim of the Sandy Hook shootings.
    “One of my favorite takeaways from the book is the idea that love is not a feeling, but love is action; what we do and why,” Mabry said. “This resonates personally for me as my passion revolves around my love of people and animals, and what one can bring to the other. We are all connected by our actions and wouldn’t it be great if more of those actions were created out of love and compassion?”
    Sidney and others will be at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum on Friday night from 5-7 p.m. to celebrate the release of Woodard’s latest book and song CD.
    Woodard explained his redirection as an artist and how he came to link love and action in an interview prior to his new book’s release.

IME: It’s not hard to find material in the real world. But it’s hard to make something beautiful out of some of the truths. You could have gone in a downer direction and probably had as many fans. Why did you go for the uplifting?
Woodard: I’ve always gravitated towards the hope found in difficult situations. … I was a big fan of Bruce Springsteen when I was getting my feet wet in songwriting, and his stories tell the truth of American life from all sides … the despair, the struggle, and ultimately the hope found in the wreckage. My tendency has always been to look for the flower pushing up through the ashes.

How do you choose from the heaps of stories? What kinds of things are you looking for?
    The stories speak to me, usually in a voice that says, ‘There’s no way you can’t do something with this.’ That happened with Scarlett’s letters to me and her son Jesse, who was killed in the shootings at Sandy Hook; you’d think those letters would be about loss, right? They’re not. They’re beautiful testimonials to the power of the human spirit. And there’s no way I couldn’t make them part of the project.
Have you had a letter yet that’s left you stumped creatively?
    Not yet. I think that’s because I listen to the letters that speak loudest, I’m already open to writing about them.

You speak a lot about your personal journey and evolution, but the details are slim as you heal yourself healing others. Can you share some of the experiences that you have been speaking from?
     The details are probably slim because the specificity of my low points hasn’t reflected the depth of loss of some of the people who send me letters, like Scarlett. My journey has been less of recovery and more of re-direction, which is the story running through the first “For The Sender” book. I’ve been on the losing end of a best friend (a black Lab), a dream, and an identity, and I go into detail about that in the first book, which really is about my relationship with myself, and learning to trust the process. The second book is more about my relationship with my horse, and learning to trust each other.

It can be difficult working on your own life stuff while helping others—it can be a slippery slope emotionally. How do you stay grounded?
     Well, my parents are really down-to-earth people who’ve worked hard all their lives, and I was brought up with this ethic of two feet on the ground and head rarely in the clouds. And I feel like I’m on solid ground these days anyway, mostly because I’m not searching anymore. Life’s too short and our time here is so precious. Whatever small things do come up usually get worked out, not in spite of helping others, but because of it, which is one of the messages in the new book. A lot of times the best way to help ourselves is to help each other.

You really took a double whammy with the fires this past summer. How did you stay steady through that? Have you written a song about it?
    I’m a believer that if you have your health (and your dog and horse), you have a lot to be thankful for, so my thoughts stayed in gratitude for what I have and with the crews working the fires. That’s how I stayed steady.
     The mudslides and ensuing flood were a little tougher, because they hit while we were in the house and were actually way more devastating for us than the fires. We had over 2 million pounds of debris back up on (and into) the house from the slides. My place is the one that was on the cover of the Express, with mud piled up against the house up to a couple feet from the basketball hoop in the driveway. … I took that photo with my phone the morning after the first slide.
     And then the flash flood. … I don’t think a lot of folks know how bad that was. The whole canyon became a river. I remember watching my horse spinning and trying to make sense of the water already building around her, knowing I wouldn’t be able to get my trailer out and trying to figure out what to do for her with the precious seconds I had. In those moments, there’s no time not to be steady—you do what you have to do. Instinct takes over. And when it passes, you clean up and get on with it, which we’re still doing. I guess the other choice would be to complain and build some drama around it, which some folks do, but I wasn’t brought up that way. You just deal with it.
     But you can count on seeing shades of last summer in the next book and album. No doubt about that.

Tell us about Christian and Brienne—that started with a bid at the Cowboy Ball, correct? You were essentially commissioned? If the letter didn’t grab you, would you have sent it back for revision? Or do you just probe more deeply?
     Actually, it started up Baker Creek on a ride with Cheryl (Bennett, Swiftsure’s Executive Director.) … We got to talking about Brienne, Christian and Sidney and before long I had that letter in my hands and had already started writing songs about it. The Cowboy Ball came later, long after the songs were done. They auctioned off a private performance with me, which is happening this week in Ketchum.

The story obviously did grab you. Why?
    I could relate to Brienne’s relationship with Sidney, which is the horse that carries Christian and so many other mentally and physically challenged riders at Swiftsure. Brienne saw something in Sidney that others didn’t, worked to give him a better life, and he gave her a better life in return. The same thing happened to me with my horse, which is the story that wraps through the new book. To see Sidney support a kid like Christian, who is sometimes violent with himself, others, and even Sidney, is a beautiful thing, and the story of what happened between them one day is even more beautiful.

Book signing
What: ‘For the Sender: Love is (Not a Feeling)’—by Alex Woodard. With photo exhibit by Caroline Woodham. Guests from Swiftsure Ranch.
When: Friday, March 7, 5-7 p.m. at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum.
More information: See

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