On his dynamic new album, Warrior Life, Nashville-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Billy Dawson delivers a set of anthemic, deeply emotional Americana-laced songs that pay tribute to the members of the U.S. military. To call it a concept record wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration. As Dawson describes it, “The album is my way of honoring the men and women who think nothing of putting their lives on the line to protect our freedoms.”
The origins for the project date back to several years ago, when Dawson attended a Wounded Warrior football game in which one of the teams was sponsored by Sierra Delta, an organization that trains and pairs service dogs with veterans.
At the game, Dawson met Chris Bishop, one of the founders of Blue Buffalo pet food, and before long the two devised the idea of recording an album to benefit Sierra Delta. “It’s such an incredible program in that it helps vets learn to communicate with their dogs and set routines for them and their pets,” Dawson says. “Dogs need somebody to love, and veterans’ hearts grow like magic because of their dogs. The bond they share is unbelievable. Chris funded the album and backed me the whole way. I couldn’t have made the record without his support.”
Dawson grew up in the Texas Panhandle and started learning how to play guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” “To this day, Jimi is my number one guy,” says Dawson, who also lists players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Petrucci, Andy Timmons, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai as influences. In his early 20s, he hit the road as a side musician, touring America and Europe with a variety of acts, including the Christian rock band Skillet, before turning his efforts to songwriting.
For many songs on Warrior Life, Dawson collaborated with fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Kelli Johnson, while on others he teamed with a number of actual veterans, such as Sgt. Maj. Robert E. Eriksson and Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, among others. “It was an incredible experience writing with such beautiful and talented people,” Dawson says.
Warrior Life is full of poignant musical moments. Dawson co-wrote the plaintive ballad “Lance Corporal Austin” about a friend who lost his life in Fallujah. “He was a very special human being,” Dawson relates. “He protected Muslim families and Americans. It was very hard losing him.” The wistful country folk song “God and a Dog” is a sing-along gem that traces the special bond between veterans and their four-legged companions. “Dogs don’t talk audibly, but they have communication powers that humans can feel,” the guitarist says. “I think there’s a reason why ‘dog’ spelled backward is ‘God.’”
Of the rousing country rock title track, Dawson recalls playing it for a veteran whose reaction was especially significant. “He had tears in his eyes and said, ‘How did you get inside my head, man?’ Something like that means a lot.”
For his guitar tracks, Dawson used a 1966 Fender Strat and a Collings acoustic, and with the exception of paint-peeling lead on the raging rocker “Never Forget,” he played all of the solos himself. “I’m a pretty good soloist,” he says, “but ‘Never Forget’ needed some crazy shreddy stuff, so I called in Nathan Keeterle. Around Nashville, he’s called ‘mini Slash.’ The guy’s brilliant.”
Other guests include Nine Inch Nails drummer Ilan Rubin and bass great Billy Sheehan. “Ilan is one of the best drummers in the world,” Dawson exclaims, “and Billy is just a monster. I put a wah on him. He was like, ‘I’ve never played with a wah before. How about you work it?’ So I controlled it myself. That was awesome.”
A who’s who of production legends contributed to the project, including mixers Bob Clearmountain, Tim Palmer, Ben Grosse, Tom Lord-Alge and Chris Lord-Alge, among others, along with mastering aces like Howie Weinberg, Bob Ludwig, Brad Blackwood and Ted Jensen. “I’m so grateful to all of them for their incredible work,” Dawson says. “They loved the music and the cause.”
For Chris Bishop, who now serves as CEO of the automotive company American Metal Custom, Warrior Life has been a dream undertaking. “When Billy and I came together, we wanted to do a great music project that was also geared toward a higher purpose. Healing was the main goal,” he says.
“Sierra Delta finds service dogs to aid veterans with extreme needs. They have another program called Life Buddy that rescues service dogs. The organization makes a big impact on the lives of both the veterans and the dogs. We’re hoping that this album can benefit everybody concerned, because they deserve everything we can do.”
Visit the Sierra Delta website to donate and listen to Warrior Life.
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Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.
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