“Travelin’ Soldier” (1996)
Written by: Bruce Robison Recorded by: the Dixie Chicks
In the fall of 1990 Bruce Robison was working as a fry cook at an Austin diner and writing his first songs. That August, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and the United States was preparing for a massive counterinvasion. Robison learned that one of his buddies at the diner, another fry cook, was being called up to active duty. The news reports during those months were full of casualty estimates, and Robison found himself contemplating the unthinkable: dying young in war. Then he started writing about something even more unbearable: dying young while being in love. The first thing to come to him was a melody—the soaring opening of the chorus—and Robison shoehorned in some words: “I-I-I-I cried, never gonna hold the hand of another guy.” Details quickly followed: a lonely boy leaving for war after high school (Robison changed the setting to Vietnam), a shy girl (“a piccolo player in the marching band”) falling for him, the love between them growing even as they are thousands of miles apart. For the final verse, as the girl cries alone because her soldier has died, Robison recalled a familiar spot, the space beneath the stadium bleachers at Bandera High, where he had gone to school.
Robison knew “Travelin’ Soldier” was good—he included it on his first album, in 1996—but he didn’t know how good until early 2003, when fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks took it to number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. With the United States again on the brink of war, singer Natalie Maines’s emotional vocals caught the pathos at the heart of the song—she sounded like the girl left behind. Then in March, at a concert in London, Maines uttered the infamous words that would destroy her band: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The fallout was swift: within a few weeks the song had dropped completely off the charts.
“Travelin’ Soldier” lives on, though. When Robison plays it today, men stare and women weep, and sometimes they give him a standing ovation. “I wish I knew how to do it again,” he says of the song he created a generation ago. “I was just starting, had no concept of what I was doing. I remember Robert Duvall talking about the line between drama and melodrama being very fine. You get older and you’re too self-conscious to dance along that line anymore. But on ‘Travelin’ Soldier,’ I got damn close to melodrama.”