The whole thing began because of a letter from a stranger named Emily. The letter turned into a song. That song inspired more letters from more strangers across the country. From those letters, more songs. Then a book. For musician, Alex Woodard, that first letter was like a buoy. When it found him, he was drifting and Emily’s story lifted him up and showed him a new path. That’s how Alex started collecting other people’s stories – stories steeped in loss. It’s an act of grace, this process, and part of that grace is the collaborative nature of it all.
This is a story that has been knocking on my door for years. I kept hearing about this talented singer/songwriter who had lost his dog—Kona, his best friend—and had written a beautiful book after strangers started writing him letters about their own stories of loss. I’d heard that he lived part-time in my adopted hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, (when he’s not living on the coast and as near to a good break as possible) and that he has a thing for horses as well as dogs. But the pitch never sold me on the idea. I don’t know why I resisted because as a rule, I love singer/songwriters, especially singer/songwriters of the cowboy/surfer variety.
But it wasn’t until a friend sent me the audio version of his first book, For the Sender, and it mysteriously found its way into my car’s CD player, that I heard the real promise of this story.
After my initial shock—wait, this isn’t NPR—I was intrigued. The voice was a good one, heavy with history and frayed at the edges. But there was also a lightness to his voice—the sort that comes with understanding. The voice was Alex Woodard’s.
If you think about what collectors do, they curate. They piece together a story or many stories from disparate parts. They tease out a natural order to things. They take little bits and pieces of the world—discarded or treasured—and they discover beauty in what was once broken, forgotten about, or lost. And that’s what Alex had been doing since that first letter came to him—writing and performing songs about other people’s lives and loves and grief and joy.
But what he had not collected was his own story. Well—scratch that—in his own way, he had. On hotel notepads, cocktail napkins, the backs of envelopes. But his story was stuffed into his jean pockets, strewn across his dining room table, hidden in some forgotten-about drawer in his kitchen, or somewhere in the bed of his truck. And as he writes in the prologue for his first book, For the Sender, it wasn’t until he and a musician friend were on the road going from one gig to the next, singing the songs that were inspired by the first set of letters from strangers, that he decided to tell his own story.
As he tells it, when that first letter found its way to him one autumn, “Me and the leaves were barely hanging on…” Alex had long been chasing the dream of being a musician and he had played gigs, been on the road, and paid his dues. But the dream was beginning to feel a little faded. He remembered his father’s words of wisdom: “Don’t be an old man in a young man’s game.” But it wasn’t only a stalled career that was bothering Alex; he was also reeling from the loss of Kona, who had died earlier that year. Kona, it seems, grounded Alex, kept him feeling connected to people and places and, most importantly, to himself.
In her letter, Emily shared with Alex, a stranger, how she had lost her “soulmate.” She wrote, “Every year around this time, I feel a little nostalgic and sad, because this is the season when I lost someone who meant a very great deal to me. You see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have experienced the amazing connection of love with a soulmate… Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago, but I still consider myself lucky…”
In literary circles, that’s what they call a “deus ex machina,” an unexpected intervention, sent from the heavens, to help a protagonist along his journey. When Alex opened that letter, he was ready to give up on his music and start over with a new plan. But he realized that if Emily was writing to him, she had seen him sing, and she had listened. And that was her gift to him. His gift to her? Songs.
After Alex received the letter, he shared it with a friend, another musician, Sean Watkins, and they wrote a song together. That song is called “For the Sender.” It’s ethereal, and it pays homage to Emily’s ritual of writing, “…so every year I write you this letter / but like a prayer / it’s more for the sender.”
The collaboration that began with Sean grew to a network of artists that Alex collected for this project. He invited another musician friend, Jordan Pundik, to sing “For the Sender,” and found Molly Jenson to sing Emily’s part in that first song. She also sings on the next song inspired by Emily’s letter—“My Love Will Find You.”
With the third song comes another collaboration with another musician friend, Jon Foreman. Alex says, “I realized that I had been writing about myself and singing about myself for so long—this was the first time I’d recorded songs with someone else’s voice about someone else’s story. It was liberating.” And now, he’s two books into a three-book project and the letters are still coming.
Talking to Alex in Bellevue, Idaho, at Swiftsure Ranch, it occurs to me that he’s not only a talented singer/songwriter, but he’s also one of those people who is capable of quieting the noise around him and tuning into what is important. I have no idea if Alex comes by it naturally or from practice and determination, but I always love conversations with people who have that gift. It’s an invitation to the world.
When you see Alex with his horse, Annie, you see his capacity for kindness. When you see him interact with the people who work and ride at Swiftsure, a ranch facility specializing in equine therapy, you see his warm nature. I’ve never seen him perform, but I bet it’s powerful. Emily must have gotten a pretty good read on him—she did, after all, choose to trust him with her story.
It’s this intersection between Alex’s story, the stories that come to him in the form of letters, and the voices he invites to be a part of these For the Sender projects that gives them such life.
For days before meeting with him, I lost myself in his books. A letter from a Sandy Hook parent, a letter from the widow of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. A letter from a woman who runs a homeless shelter for children.
At one point, I wonder if there’s something voyeuristic about it, but I wave that thought away. There’s a grace in the way that Alex curates their stories. He matches each offering with something of his own. And somewhere, in the midst of it all—there’s healing.
I ask Alex how he can immerse himself in that much loss all the time. He smiles and says, “Each of those stories is about a devastating loss, but each story is also about overcoming the waves of grief—or at least learning to accept the grief, giving it a place, and finding your own sense of peace.”
Since Alex received that first letter and wrote his first song, the letters have kept coming. Currently, Alex is working on his third book, due out later in 2015. Each book includes a CD with the songs inspired by the letters.
The Books – Available through your local bookstores (if out of stock, just ask them to order it!)or at alexwoodard.com.
+ Part I: For the Sender: 4 Letters, 12 Songs, One Story
+ Part II: For the Sender: Love Is Not a Feeling
+ Part III: For the Sender: Coming later in 2015