Telluride-based singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson remembers being on stage playing “Hometown Hero,” a song she wrote to pay tribute to her cousin James O. Twist, an Afghanistan war veteran who died by suicide in 2019 at the age of 27. She peered into the audience and saw her postmaster, himself a veteran, who had told her during a friendly chat that suicide plagues the veteran community. Around 20 will die by suicide on any given day, he told her.
“He came to my concert and heard me play ‘Hometown Hero,’” says Robinson, who will play eTown in Boulder on March 25. “This staunch old man was just standing in the back crying. He was a veteran. His three sons all served in the military. He gave me that statistic and said he calls his sons every day to make sure they are OK.”
Robinson last year released “American Siren,” her first on Oh Boy records, founded by legendary songwriter John Prine in the 1980s, and a follow up to her self-released record “Traveling Mercies.”
“Hometown Hero” features on the latest album. The song isn’t the only time Robinson, who plays a blend of country and bluegrass, has mined her personal life in her music. She first came to Colorado from North Carolina to work as a victim advocate on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, a job that she says has influenced her songwriting. “Things You Learn The Hard Way” springs from experiences from her own life and those of people who responded to a post on social media in which she sought similar stories about learning through misadventure.
Though inspiration comes from a variety of sources for the songwriter, “Hometown Hero” was perhaps the most complex and personally challenging song Robinson has written in her career. Her cousin’s time in Afghanistan was arguably more difficult and more upsetting than that of the average soldier. That’s saying a lot because, as the adage goes, “war is hell.” And James found his own hell. He was attached to a platoon led by Lt. Clint Lorance, who in 2012 ordered men under his command to kill Afghan civilians. He was later convicted of murder but then received a presidential pardon in 2019, less than a month after James died by suicide.
“James didn’t even live to see him pardoned,” she says.
Robinson says the pardon was incredibly demoralizing to her family, and many people in the military have spoken out against it, because, in their view, it undermined their sense of a moral code. As far as she knows, the other men who served with her cousin were upset about the pardon.
“They were there,” she says. “They knew what happened. He basically turned several young people into murderers. They were forced into it. They were faced with either defying his orders and being threatened and punished, or pulling the trigger.”
She adds that many members of her cousin’s platoon have died by suicide, drug overdoses and accidents. James was only 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan and was haunted by what happened for years afterward. The unit has come to be known as the “Cursed Platoon,” according to the Washington Post.
Robinson says that what she has gathered from conversations with family members is that the mission in Afghanistan wasn’t always clear to those deployed there. James told relatives that they were trying to build relationships and rapport with the Afghans and doing service projects in villages and towns. It was all in the interest of keeping the Taliban at bay. It was work that felt undone by Lorance’s crimes. She adds that, although justice came for Lorance — and was later withdrawn — during President Barack Obama’s administration, the men who served under him have largely been ignored, at least in official channels.
“James’ platoon wasn’t decorated,” she says. “They weren’t acknowledged. They were all kind of buried, because it was PR crisis for the military. So those people were silenced in talking about their own experiences.”
James’ time in Afghanistan, and his reaction to it, wasn’t simple, however.
“My cousin James, like most veterans, had a really complicated relationship to his service,” Robinson says. “He was really proud of some of some of the things he was a part of. He was really close to the people he served with.”
Robinson says she goes fairly in-depth about her cousin and his struggles before she performs the song in live settings. It’s important for her to tell the story as it has been a long, arduous journey for her family and continues to be so. She’s been surprised by the reaction to the song, because it resonates with so many people, particularly other veterans. As hopeless as James’ story is, she meets veterans who are doing good work and helping their communities become better places to live. It’s heartening to hear a story with a happy ending.
“There are lots of people doing just incredible things,” she says. “Building resilience and creating these healing spaces for veterans healing through trauma and finding new meaning in civilian life back home.”
She adds that she feels fortunate to be able to tell her cousin’s story, sad as it may be, because sometimes people at shows tell her it’s a story they needed to hear to make sense of their own experience.
“There are people out there that when they hear this song, it’s a reflection they needed to hear,” she says. “Somebody else had experienced something they went through, losing a friend or a family member.”
Emily Scott Robinson plays eTown in Boulder on March 25 at 7 p.m. She is joined by Denver duo LVDY. Tickets cost $20 plus fees and are available at eventbrite.com. More information on etown is available at etown.org. “American Siren” is now available through emilyscottrobinson.com.