- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

When 17-year-old country-Western buff Luke Stricklin enlisted in the National Guard in April 2000, in pre-September 11 serenity, he thought the riskiest prospect was a six-month deployment in a place like Kosovo. He never dreamed of spending a year in the war zone around Baghdad.

But then, he never dreamed of playing the Grand Ole Opry, where he will appear for the second time Nov. 11 — Veterans Day, as it happens.

“Everything happened really fast,” Mr. Stricklin, 22, says on a cell phone shortly before boarding an airplane to his next tour stop. (The soldier-turned-singer last month shared a bill with country band Montgomery Gentry at Nissan Pavilion’s Tribute to the Troops concert.)

Mr. Stricklin, a southwest Arkansas native, grew up listening to the music of his late father’s heroes, legends such as Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. He is riding a wave of largely unsought success that began when a song he had recorded on a fellow soldier’s laptop — and e-mailed to his mother — cropped up on radio stations around the country earlier this year.

The song, a rough acoustic demo, is called “American by God’s Amazing Grace,” and Mr. Stricklin wrote it primarily to describe the reality of daily life in Iraq to his wife, Ashley, and family and friends whom he didn’t want to burden with grim news about sewage in the streets, car bombs and dead comrades.

“The thing that bothered me most was the conditions that some of those people had to live in, kids who hadn’t bathed in months. I mean, they had nothing,” he says.

With every precious phone call home, he says he would be peppered with questions such as, “What’s it like?” “What’s going on?” He couldn’t fess up. “The last thing you want to do is talk about it on the few phone calls you have and worry them that much more,” Mr. Stricklin says.

“I thought, well, they keep asking the question, I’ll just have to sit down and try to answer it.”

Sample stanza:

Bottom of my boots sure are gettin’ worn. There’s a lot of holes in this faded uniform. My hands are black with dirt and so is my face I ain’t never been to hell, but it couldn’t be any worse than this place

Got the picture?

When Mr. Stricklin returned from Iraq last March, he had a notion that the song had been “passed around,” but not nearly to the extent that it had. About a week after he deplaned, the Arkansas radio station that debuted “American by God’s Amazing Grace” had set up a gig for him at City Limits, a club in Fort Smith, Ark.

“Of course, I didn’t have a band, so I went over there to the venue to meet the club owner. Luckily, they had a house band. So they hooked me up,” Mr. Stricklin says.

The gig quickly led to a record deal. The club’s owners, Lee Dewbre and Pat Winton, had connections to a small indie label, Pacific-Time Records. With Nashville session musicians, Mr. Stricklin recorded a full-length album with “American by God’s Amazing Grace” as its title track.

Though the specter of being called up for a second Iraq tour floats in the back of his mind, Mr. Stricklin says he’s taking each day as it comes. “There’s always that chance,” he says, but he’s already at work on a self-titled follow-up album for Pacific-Time.

“I really didn’t get homesick,” he says of his time in Iraq. “When I got there, I just pretty much told myself, ‘This is gonna be life for awhile.’ ”

Life as a musician, of course, looks much rosier for Mr. Stricklin.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve been blessed. We’ll just see how it works out.”

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