SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — Often, a song can capture a life better than a long story. Songwriter Don Goodman knows this well.
He helped to write the song “Mama’s Bible,” about World War II veteran J.B. Stubblefield who passed on Sept. 8 and was honored at this year’s American Mule and Bluegrass Festival.
The album, “Freedom Sings WWII” in which Stubblefield’s song is featured, has 15 songs on it, all written about other World Ward II veterans. “To sit there and listen to their stories and go back to World War Two with them is amazing,” Goodman said.
Goodman said he wants them to tell them their whole story so he can make the song really personal. “It’s not just another war song; it’s their song,” he said. He loves the details like where they were born, where they served, who they married when they came home.
“I want to pull out what they’ve never told anybody,” he said. It works. Family members come up to Goodman and say, “I never knew my dad did that...” or “I think I know now why my dad cries so much...”
“That’s when I know I’ve nailed it,” he said.
Some 22 veterans, of all ages and wars, take their lives every day. And out of those 15 veterans on the album, Goodman says only two are still alive today. The average age is 100.
“So, we’re losing our veterans,” he said. Goodman said every single one of the veterans’ songs was played at the funeral. Even through the heartache, Goodman takes it as a compliment as it goes to show how important the songs are to the family.
“To me, it’s like a kid finding a diary and going wow, this is grandpa,” he explained.
Goodman, who’s 78, has been writing for Freedom Sings USA for about eight years now. He was 70 years old at the time and felt the music industry was changing too much. “The new music, it wasn’t me and I didn’t want to write it,” he said.
One day, he got invited to the VA where he sat in on one of the writing sessions with the veterans. “It was life changing. I came out of there that day on a mission,” he said.
Born in Hohenwald and raised in Detroit, Goodman came to Nashville in 1971. He says you don’t “get into songwriting; it gets into you.”
“I hitchhiked into town, honestly, with a shoebox full of songs. And they were awful. But I just felt in my heart, that’s where I was supposed to be,” he said.
“Back in the day,” Goodman wrote several hits, including “Ol’ Red,” sung by George Jones, “Angels Among Us” recorded by Alabama, and Conway Twitty’s “Feelin’s”
“I’ve written, I don’t know, 2-3,000 songs maybe.” He jokes he’s the world’s worst guitar player and an even worse singer. So he always surrounded him with talented musicians and singers.
“After a while, you can hear the melody in your head,” he said.
Today, he has written over 300 songs with the veterans, stretching from World War II to Korea to the Gulf Wars.
The story of J.B. Stubblefield is remarkable, and Goodman said they were able to capture it in three and half minutes.
While serving in the Second World War, Stubblefield got separated from his troops while stationed in New Guinea. He went MIA. They didn’t find him until two years later. Goodman said he was lying half-in, half-out of a river suffering with amnesia and dying from malaria. But they identified him through a pocket-sized Bible given to him by his mama, where his name was written on the inside cover.
“I tried to squeeze every bit of actual information into that song I could. I mean, I could’ve written a book,” he said.
Donovan Chapman, a Billboard Top 40 singer, sang the song “Mama’s Bible.” “I enjoy the fact that I can help capture the story and capitalize on what they did,” he said.
The night before Stubblefield passed, he got to hear “Mama’s Bible” for the first and last time.
Goodman recalls, “We recorded the song that afternoon. They got the mix to me at about 6:30. At 7 o’clock, I sent it to Perry Stubblefield, J.B.’s son. And at 7:30, they played it for him. And he died the next night,” he said. “We got it there, in the 11th hour.”
But the songwriting is not just veterans. Goodman recalled one time when he sat down with an 8-year-old girl whose daddy was killed in Iraq.
Goodman quotes, “She wrote: Mama pushed me in the swing so high, up to heaven where the angels fly. I want to go where daddies go and never die. Mama pushed me in the swing so high.”
He says the greatest compliments are when the veterans say they listened to the song a hundred times. “When you get a phone call from a veteran and he says, ‘you saved my life,’ a gold or platinum record — a whole wall of them — is only a candle to that phone call.”
“You know when you get one right — and it doesn’t matter if the whole world likes it or not — if you know you got it right and as good as you could possibly do, there is no better feeling,” he said.
They are expanding Freedom Sings USA, including female veteran classes and more opportunities with the VA. To access their music, go to www.freedomsingsusa.org. Every penny raised goes to the veterans.