Although written from the heart, Alex Woodward’s new album and book share another’s story.
Two years ago the award-winning author and singer-songwriter received a package from a fan that inspired the project. The box contained a 1968 photograph of young U.S. Air Force Sgt. John K. Fuller in Vietnam, copies of his letters home from the war and more-recent letters that Fuller’s now-grown daughter, Jennifer, wrote to her late father.
“When I looked at it and saw what it was, I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Woodard, a longtime Encinitas resident who recently relocated to Rancho Santa Fe. “It was such a compelling story.”
Published on Veterans Day, “For the Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam,” is a 248-page book and 13-song album that weaves together fact and fiction. The book focuses on the Fuller family’s history, from the veteran’s letters to then-wife, Rebecca, to the story of his struggles after the war.
After fighting in Vietnam, Fuller faced his own battles at home. He was became addicted to alcohol and drugs, cheated on his wife, abandoned his family, and was shot to death in 1998.
“Something had shifted in him, but this was before you talked about that stuff,” Woodard said.
Several years after the death of her father, Jennifer found his letters. Still grieving, she wrote him back. The first letter was written as if it was 1968, two years before her birth. It begins with, “Dear Sergeant Fuller, You won’t know me for another two years, but I am your daughter.”
“It got me,” Woodard said. “There was a huge story there with just that sentence. I had to keep reading. The more I read, the more I got locked into this story.”
In addition to letters from Jennifer, the book features letters Woodard wrote to Jennifer in Fuller’s voice, creating a father-daughter conversation that could have happened but never did.
This isn’t the first time letters have inspired Woodard’s writing.
The album and book package is the third and final installment in Woodard’s “For the Sender” series. The project began in 2008, after the death of his dog and the downfall of his record deal.
To promote his now self-published CDs, the then-struggling artist promised to write a song for anyone who preordered an album if they sent him a personal story or letter. Emily Jackson, who had been grieving the death of her boyfriend, sent Woodard a note and a copy of a posthumous love letter she had written to her boyfriend.
“I ended up being really moved by it,” Woodard explained in an interview last year. “This letter mirrored what I was going through.”
Woodard shared Jackson’s letter with fellow singer-songwriter Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and inspired by the words, they collaborated on a song called “For the Sender.”
As more letters came in, Woodard continued to collaborate with other artists.
One song turned into a dozen, and in addition to an album, Woodward created an accompanying book, “For the Sender: Four Letters. Twelve Songs. One Story.” The 2012 set became a three-part album, book and concert series. The second album and book, “For the Sender: Love Is (Not a Feeling),” was released last year.
“So many of these stories are traumatic,” he said. “These letters have all been about the growth and the beauty that can come after trauma.”
“For the Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam” is the first time the project has focused on a single subject.
To write the book, Woodard researched the Vietnam War and interviewed several veterans, whose recollections are included. The book comes with a CD of songs written as if Fuller and his daughter are singing together. Woodard sings as Fuller and fellow singer-songwriter Molly Jensen sings as Jennifer.
“I wanted the songs to be from their hearts,” Woodard said. “It became a musical conversation between two people.”
Jennifer first wrote to Woodard after she saw him perform a “For the Sender” concert in Texas several years ago. She finally got to hear the songs inspired by her family’s story when Woodard and Jenson recently visited her and her mother, Rebecca, in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The singers performed every song, and with the family, sent a copy of the book out to sea in honor of Fuller.
“The experience was really beautiful,” said Woodard, who returned the letters to Rebecca. “It was really special.”
Continuing the celebration of his new album and book, Woodard will host a benefit concert Dec. 20 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. He will be joined by others who have worked on the series over the years, including Jenson, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Jordan Pundik of New Found Glory, Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Nena Anderson and Jack Tempchin, among other special guests.
In partnership with Switchfoot’s Bro-Am Foundation, the concert will feature songs from the “For the Sender” series, with funds benefitting Team Red, White and Blue’s surf camp for veterans. A portion of the proceeds from the album and book will also benefit nonprofit organizations that serve veterans, including Team RWB, Shelter to Soldier and the Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
The concert begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $18 in advance and $20 the day of the event. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.bellyup.com.
“Everybody who’s in the ‘For the Sender’ family is a part of it,” Woodard said. “It’s like a reunion. We don’t get to get together all that often. We have so much fun doing it and the audience sees that.”
The latest “For the Sender” album and book are the last in the series — for now.
Woodard is planning to spend much of 2016 on tour to promote the project, beginning with a local show, likely in February at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. After that, he wants to work on an unrelated album. He also has ideas for other books.
“This is the last in the series for now,” Woodard said. “It feels like a good signing off point for now, but I’m sure writing songs about letters isn’t finished for me, by any means.”
For more about Woodard and the “For the Sender” series, visit www.alexwoodard.com and www.forthesender.com.